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Iowa's GOP governor opposes Ted Cruz. Will that matter?

Terry Branstad's opposition to Cruz come's from left field, and it might suggest that state issues have lost their pull in national elections.

Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad delivers his annual Condition of the State address before a joint session of the Iowa Legislature, at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa. Jan. 12, 2016.

Call it an anti-endorsement: Iowa’s GOP Gov. Terry Branstad says he hopes Ted Cruz loses the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1.

Why is the top elected Republican in the Hawkeye State bashing a guy who’s currently near or at the top in polls of Iowa voters? Sen. Cruz (R) of Texas opposes continued federal government support of ethanol, that’s why.

Cruz is in favor of phasing out government requirements that gas sold in the United States contain a certain amount of ethanol. But ethanol is big business in the Midwest Corn Belt.

Cruz “hasn’t supported renewable fuels, and I think it would be a big mistake for Iowa to support him,” said Governor Branstad at the Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit on Tuesday.

At issue here could be early momentum in the Republican presidential race. Polls now show Cruz virtually tied with Donald Trump in polls of likely caucus attendees. This push from Branstad amounts to an endorsement of Trump, without mention of a name.

But there’s something at stake here for Branstad, too. The two-time governor’s own approval ratings have slipped somewhat in recent months. He might face further political damage if his effort to block Cruz fails, or backfires.

“Two Branstad allies swore to me recently he wouldn’t endorse. One reason: His #s have slipped considerably. Worth keeping in mind re Cruz,” tweeted National Review Online chief political correspondent Tim Alberta on Tuesday.

Did we mention that Branstad’s son Eric Branstad works for the pro-ethanol group, America’s Renewable Future?

And finally there’s the whole notion that local issues can predominate in US politics, even in national elections. The mere fact that Cruz is near the top in Iowa hints that this may not entirely be the case.

If ethanol is Iowa’s third rail, why hasn’t Cruz yet been shocked? His opposition to ethanol, rooted in his conservative opposition to government picking economic winners and losers, hasn’t been a secret.

Nor is Iowa the only state where this is happening. Both Cruz and ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have proposed phasing out subsidies for sugar producers, major employers in Florida and some other southern agricultural states. The US Export-Import Bank has provided lots of financing for Boeing, which has a big presence in South Carolina, third in line in this year’s GOP voting. But virtually all the Republican hopefuls support abolishing the Ex-Im Bank, saying it’s a symbol of corporate welfare.

It’s possible that elections are just more national than they used to be. Debates, which center on national questions, are more popular in the 2016 election cycle than ever before. Plus, parties and voters are more ideologically polarized. That means US politics has split into distinct national party “brands,” pushing local variations into the background.

Of course, it’s also possible that Iowa voters just weren’t that aware of Cruz’s ethanol opposition. Maybe his support in the state will plummet. We’ll all find out after the caucuses, now less than two weeks away.

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