Hoping to garner support in Iowa’s large agricultural community, U.S. Senate candidate Matt Whitaker has embarked on a 20-stop “farm listening tour”. The first two stops were held Monday, in Johnson and Linn Counties. The Johnson County event went well. The second, not so much.
Whitaker showed up at 1:30 in the afternoon at a John Deere dealership in Mt. Vernon, ready to listen to the concerns of rural Iowans and farmers. Just one problem: There was no one to listen to.
The only people in the room were Matt Whitaker, two of his campaign staffers, a local newspaper reporter, the obligatory Democrat tracker and yours truly. The former U.S. attorney shrugged off the embarrassing situation. Instead, he held a media availability, then toured the facility.
“I’m enjoying it,” Whitaker said of the campaign so far. “It really is excited. It’s one of those things that you never know who you’re going to meet or what you’re going to end up talking about. I just think it makes you a better candidate, someone that people see you out there doing the hard work of putting together a campaign.”
Such is the life on the campaign trail for a relative unknown, 11 months before the GOP primary. Although Whitaker played football for Iowa Hawkeyes, is a former U.S. attorney and previously ran as a statewide candidate, 86 percent of Iowans do not known enough about him to form an opinion, according to a poll taken in May..
Whitaker is hardly the first candidate to deal with sparse crowds. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum often retells the story of his 2011 tour stop in Montgomery County, which included a single attendee. That was Margaret Stoldorf, the county GOP chair. Santorum went on to win the 2012 Iowa Caucus following a huge surge in the final month. Democrat congressional candidate Christie Vilsack had an identical situation in Audubon County.
The decision by Whitaker’s campaign to conduct a “farm listening tour” is an interesting one. Listening tours are the modus operandi for well-known liberal Democrats trying to convince voters they are actually moderates. Hillary Clinton famously adopted the practice prior to her first senatorial run in New York.
More recently, former Iowa First Lady Christie Vilsack embarked on a listening tour of Iowa’s Fourth District prior to officially entering the congressional race against Steve King. The results for Vilsack were disastrous. The “listening tour” was a way for her to avoid answering questions or taking sides on issues, while seeming to pay attention to the concerns of rural, conservative Iowans. Some voters found the entire practice insulting to their intelligence.
Whitaker, an Ankeny native, readily admits he is not well-versed on agricultural issues and that’s why he is conducting the listening tour.
“I want to learn agriculture, the business of agriculture, hear from farmers and those that deal in agriculture as to what the important issues are,” Whitaker explained. “What are their feelings on the farm bill, what’s pending in Washington, D.C., what their experiences with the EPA have been, and issues relating to water quality. Issues about imports and exports.”
Whitaker said there were around 20 people at his first listening tour event, in rural Johnson County. One of the issues discussed at that event was the Farm Bill, which failed to pass in the Iowa House, as a surprise to some Republicans. Whitaker said attendees at his first meeting noted that 80 percent of the Farm Bill dealt with food stamps and the two should not be tied together.
The problem with this “farm listening tour” strategy is, by catering just to farmers, it completely limits the audience and results in embarrassing situations like the one in Mt. Vernon. Even well-known officials like Chuck Grassley and Terry Branstad sometimes have trouble drawing big crowds in small towns during the middle of the afternoon.
Combining Matt Whitaker’s low name recognition with events designed for a limited constituency is a recipe for disaster. Farmers are busy people. They have better things to do than meet with politicians in the middle of the afternoon.
If the Whitaker campaign wants to develop some strong ag-related policies, a better approach would be to open the events up to everyone, convene a couple of luncheons with ag leaders in different areas of the state to get their ideas, and consult with people like Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey. Also, inviting the media to these events is probably not the wisest choice.
You can view Matt Whitaker’s full media availability below:
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