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Senate candidates stress support for ethanol, split agricultural endorsements

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DES MOINES, Iowa — Ethanol production has become a key issue in Iowa's closely matched U.S. Senate race, with both candidates pledging support for an industry that is important to the state's corn-powered agricultural economy.

Democrat Bruce Braley and Republican Joni Ernst have both sought to assure voters that they oppose a proposal from the Environmental Protection Agency that would reduce the amount of ethanol and other biofuels that must be blended into gasoline.

Braley is touting his efforts as a congressman to halt the changes, including testifying against the cut at an EPA hearing. Ernst also argues that she supports maintaining the existing standard — known as the Renewable Fuel Standard or RFS — though she has taken questions over statements that she is opposed to subsidies from a "philosophical standpoint."

Recent endorsements in the race show that both candidates are getting some support from farming groups. The Iowa Farm Bureau's political committee endorsed the farm-raised Ernst, while the Iowa Corn Growers Association PAC backed Braley. Both groups cite the RFS as a key issue for members.

Mark Recker, chairman of the Corn Growers PAC, and a corn farmer from Arlington, said Braley's record on ethanol was a key reason for the endorsement. The group also backed Republican Gov. Terry Branstad and a mix of Democrats and Republicans in other races.

"The congressman's work on the renewable fuel standard and ethanol, he's always voted with us," said Recker. "She has been coming around on that issue, she has been. But when we look at the aggregate of the issues, the congressman has been very good on our key issues."

Asked about the endorsement, Ernst said she couldn't speculate on why the group backed Braley.

"They know I am an RFS supporter," said Ernst. "I support renewable energy, all kinds of renewable energy. They typically will support incumbents."

Lance Bell, PAC chairman for the Farm Bureau and a farmer from Weldon, said Ernst offered her support for the renewable fuel standard in a questionnaire from the group. He said the committee, which also endorsed Branstad and typically backs Republican candidates, likes Ernst for supporting tax policies that benefit agriculture businesses.

Braley spokesman Jeff Giertz declined to comment on the farm bureau endorsement but said the campaign was proud of the backing from the corn growers.

Iowa is the nation's leading producer of ethanol, a fuel additive primarily made from corn that produces lower carbon emissions than gasoline. The state is home to 43 ethanol plants and 12 biodiesel facilities, according to the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association.

An EPA proposal for renewable fuel standards would reduce by almost 3 billion gallons the amounts of ethanol and other biofuels blended into gasoline in 2014 than the law now requires. Iowa's elected officials have vocally protested the suggested change, arguing that the move would be devastating to the state's economy. An EPA spokeswoman said the agency is still finalizing the rule.

Both candidates in the Senate race have offered support for agriculture and tried to emphasis their rural connections.

Ernst, 44, a state senator, has been promoting her rural roots, growing up on an Iowa farm. But she has had to explain her statements about a philosophical opposition to subsidies. Last month she sent a letter to EPA administrator Gina McCarthy to affirm her backing for maintaining the RFS standard.

Braley, 56, a four-term congressman, has struggled to explain himself since a video was released of him referring to senior Sen. Charles Grassley, a six-term Republican, as a "farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law." He has apologized for the remark and stressed his close ties to rural Iowa.

Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, said he's glad both candidates are talking about the issue, saying both have a strong record on renewable energy.

"It is a relevant issue. We're not going to get into playing the issue cop between candidates," Shaw said. "We think it's great that people are asking these questions."

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