In the Russell Senate Office Building Caucus Room, Fred McClure was watching the crowd. It was March 1978, and the American Agriculture Movement — a pressure group for government support of farm prices — was meeting with Texan congressmen.
A legislative aide to Sen. John Tower (R.), McClure was leaning on a door when a rancher from Paint Creek, Texas, named Rick Perry walked past. Newly retired from the Air Force, Perry held a degree in animal science from Texas A&M. His class ring gave him away.
Spotting the ring, McClure, a fellow Texas A&M grad, introduced himself, and the two hit it off. Thirteen years later McClure, a notary public, would swear Perry into office as Texas’s agriculture commissioner, his first statewide office.
Today, McClure thinks Perry’s agricultural roots could help him win the presidency.
“He has the ability to communicate with all parts of the agricultural chain — whether it’s production or retail,” McClure tells National Review Online.
David Yepsen, former chief political correspondent for the Des Moines Register, believes that ability could prove fruitful in Iowa. “It’s important for candidates to show that they understand people and their problems,” he says. “And having an agricultural background will be helpful to any candidate.”
But Iowans aren’t a bunch of hayseeds. Laurie Johns, spokeswoman for the Iowa Farm Bureau, says, “People representing different candidates have called me up looking for a farm to hold some type of meeting, and they don’t want a modern farm. They want some old barn with hay bales stacked in the background, a farmer in overalls, and an ancient tractor the candidate can stand on. It’s amusing, but it’s also sad because it shows how out of touch they are. They’re looking for American Gothic, and we’ve gone way beyond that.”
Besides, the political advantage of a farming background is vulnerable to exaggeration, Yepsen warns: “Iowa is a state of 3 million people. Only 80,000 or so are farmers. And the actual number of farmers who attend caucuses is pretty small.” Still, the evidence of a “Midwest regional bias” in the caucuses is clear. Consider the candidates who have performed well there: South Dakota senator George McGovern, Georgia peanut farmer Jimmy Carter, Colorado cowboy Gary Hart, and Kansas senator Bob Dole.
Ken Luce, who managed Perry’s campaign for agriculture commissioner in 1990, believes the advantage extends beyond Iowa. “The agriculture economy is very important from Florida all the way to California and in between,” he says. As agriculture commissioner, Perry felt comfortable getting into the weeds of agriculture policy, such as inspecting gas pumps and determining funding for fire-ant programs. And, perhaps most importantly, the skills Perry sharpened in winning his first statewide race could be useful if he runs for president.
In 1990, Perry was an obscure state legislator running against one of the most popular Texas politicians of the 1980s: Jim Hightower. Although Hightower had the advantage of incumbency, Perry rallied several important constituencies to his side. Farmers were livid with Hightower over his opposition to pesticides and his favoritism toward niche markets such as organic foods. Perry argued that Texas should support its mainstays, such as cotton and wheat. When the European Community temporarily banned imports of hormone-treated beef, Perry urged Hightower to stick up for Texas ranchers (instead, Hightower suggested they could sell hormone-free beef to Europe).
“Hightower ignored mainstream agriculture for years, so they were riled up and Rick got them to cross over,” Luce says. Perry beat the well-liked incumbent, 49 percent to 47 percent, even while the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Clayton Williams, lost to Democrat Ann Richards.