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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Corn-Powered Politics

Air Date: Week of

George Connor is a political science professor at Missouri State University. (Courtesy of: George Connor)

In Missouri, ethanol has taken center stage in the U.S. senatorial race. Both the Republican and Democratic candidates are touting their devotion to the corn-based fuel to woo the state’s farming communities. Host Steve Curwood talks with George Connor, associate professor of political science at Missouri State University about the race.


CURWOOD: One race where energy issues are center stage is in Missouri. You could say the debate is over ethanol, except there is no debate between the two contenders for the U.S. Senate over the value of ethanol. The scrapping there is over which person will do more to promote the production of crop-based fuels. In one corner is Republican Senator James Talent, who is running for a second term.

TALENT: My record on this is clear I’m not only supporting ethanol and biodiesel but I’ve been a leader in that fight. I’m the co-chairman of biofuels caucus. I received an award from the American Coalition for Ethanol and I’m gonna tell ya, they don’t give those awards to people unless they support ethanol.

CURWOOD: In the other corner is Democrat and former state auditor Claire McCaskill, who narrowly lost a run for Missouri’s governorship two years ago.

McCASKILL: I was for ethanol before ethanol was cool. [LAUGHS IN AUDIENCE] It’s good for our economy, it’s good for our environment, and it’s good for our national security.

CURWOOD: Here to give us his analysis of Missouri Senatorial race is George Connor, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Missouri State University. Professor Connor, welcome to Living on Earth.

George Connor is a political science professor at Missouri State University.(Courtesy of: George Connor)

CONNOR: Hello, thank you for having me.

CURWOOD: As I understand it two years ago Ms. McCaskill nearly won the governorship. She lost it narrowly in some rural communities, right?

CONNOR: That is correct.

CURWOOD: So, what does the Democratic challenger, Ms. McCaskill hope to gain with an emphasis on ethanol?

CONNOR: The argument that Claire McCaskill is facing is that she lost the governorship in part because she did not campaign hard in what we call outstate Missouri, what you would call rural Missouri. There are 114 counties in Missouri, 108-109 of them are what you would classify as rural. And Claire McCaskill lost in all of those counties. So she is searching for an issue that resonates with those voters. She’s really taken 2 tacks. The first is that she has Missouri values. That she was born in Houston, Missouri and raised in a rural community and that she understands the rural community and its values, its sympathies, its needs, its economic interests and so on. And in particular with respect to the economic interest, Missouri is an agricultural state for those rural communities corn is a very important commodity. Claire McCaskill has focused on ethanol as an issue that she can tout, that she can claim as a way to get entrance into those rural voters that she lost 2 years ago.

CURWOOD: Republican Senator, Jim Talent, though has been a big supporter of ethanol. In fact he calls himself Mr. Ethanol. You’d think he has this issue sewn up.

CONNOR: Senator Talent isn’t as good or adept or willing to toot his own horn. He is known as an ethanol senator. His ads try and touch on that issue. But most of the work that Senator Talent does with respect to ethanol is in Washington. It is not something that’s touted back here in Missouri. So, you’re right he might, based on his record, have the ethanol issue locked up, but because the average voter in Missouri doesn’t know about his efforts with ethanol, he doesn’t.

CURWOOD: Now he has been campaigning on his record of supporting the energy bill that Congress passed last year and the boost of that legislation gave to ethanol. Yet I understand that his opponent is attacking Senator Talent for that very same bill saying that it shows support for the oil industry rather than ethanol. How can we have very different interpretations of that one act of Congress?

CONNOR: Well, in part it’s an issue of perspective. Claire McCaskill argues in other adds as well as the one that you’re referring to that Senator Talent is basically in the pocket of big oil companies and when gas prices were very high that was something that she hoped would resonate with the voters. So she’s trying to shore up her base. She runs an add with a farmer in bib overalls saying how much money it costs to run his tractor and farm equipment and so on. And then she tries to blame the rising price of gas on Senator Talent by tying him to the big oil companies. And yet at the same time Senator Talent runs an add arguing that big oil companies oppose the energy bill, oppose the renewable energy resources that were in that bill that were proposed there by the President. And so you have to candidates looking at exactly the same piece of legislation in exactly the opposite way.

CURWOOD: Now tell me, how does the oil and gas industry figure into this race? What significant campaign contributions if any?

CONNOR: Well, I should say Senator Talent has not quite twice as much money as Claire McCaskill in this campaign. And consider, I think all parties know, Senator Talent has taken money from big oil. Claire McCaskill has not taken money from the major oil interests. That’s part of her campaign as well, “I’m not in the pocket of big oil, as opposed to my opponent.”

CURWOOD: What does ethanol mean to Missourians? How do Missourians look at it?

CONNOR: I think with respect to the campaigns there’s multiple elements in the ethanol debate. I think both candidates are talking about reducing our dependence on foreign oil. And I think that has some resonance with the average voter. I think they’re also talking in terms of national security because if we reduce our dependence on foreign oil we increase our national security. I think in the end both candidates are almost shamelessly rooting for voters. Because what it comes down to in Missouri is ethanol means jobs. Ethanol means preserving the family farm. Ethanol means preserving a way of life. Ethanol means having a market for the crops. Ethanol has many benefits but it comes down to the bottom line, which is dollars and cents. And for the rural voter ethanol is something that you can’t afford to oppose.

CURWOOD: What’s the significance of this Senate race for the state of Missouri?

CONNOR: Well, I think in terms of the significance for the state it’s not as important as people would think. Republicans control the house, they control the senate and they control the governorship. So it’s not quite a lonely voice in the wilderness if Claire McCaskill were to win. But with respect to Missouri it won’t have that much of an impact. But I think that is not true at the national level. Missouri is a microcosm or as they say a bellwether state. So as Missouri goes so goes the nation. So if Claire McCaskill does win I think it has bigger implications nationally. Because I thin if democrats can win Missouri that means they can win the senate and potentially take over.

CURWOOD: Well, we’ll be watching this one closely.

CONNOR: Yeah, lots of stuff going on.

CURWOOD: George Connor is an associate professor of political science at Missouri State University. Thank you sir.

CONNOR: Thank you very much for having me.



George Connor


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