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As farmers, implement dealers, rural financiers and the rest of Minnesota's agrarian class rolled into Farmfest on Tuesday, the first sight they beheld was a group of fresh-faced College Republicans standing on the side of the road holding signs assailing the federal cap-and-trade bill.

FarmFest: Walz, Demmer joust over cap-and-trade

Charley Shaw)

CD 1 U.S. Rep. Tim Walz (left) and his Republican challenger, state Rep. Randy Demmer, sparred over cap-and-trade and other ag policy concerns at FarmFest Tuesday. (Staff photo: Charley Shaw)

DFLer’s 2009 vote a hot-button issue again

As farmers, implement dealers, rural financiers and the rest of Minnesota’s agrarian class rolled into Farmfest on Tuesday, the first sight they beheld was a group of fresh-faced College Republicans standing on the side of the road holding signs assailing the federal cap-and-trade bill.

In this Republican-leaning part of the state, which is currently represented in Congress by DFLer Tim Walz, it’s the second year in a row that Republicans have amplified the controversial cap-and-trade bill that Walz voted for in 2009.

“The main reason we’re here is Walz supports the cap and trade bill, which is going to hit farmers hard,” said Minnesota College Republicans Chairman Tyler Verry as vans and pick-up trucks rolled past en route to one of the vast grass parking fields at Farmfest grounds in Redwood County.

The so-called Waxman-Markey bill, which narrowly passed the House last year before stalling in the Senate, would cap carbon emissions and allow polluters to offset their emissions by buying and selling pollution allowances on a market.

Inside a tent during the sweltering first day of Farmfest, Walz’s GOP opponent, state Rep. Randy Demmer, R-Hayfield, played up the financial burden cap-and-trade would place on farmers.

“Cap-and-trade is not energy policy. Cap-and-trade is a tax. And it will fall particularly hard on agriculture,” Demmer said.

Walz, who won a commanding re-election in 2008, isn’t trying to duck his vote on cap-and-trade. He argues instead that the policy would help the U.S. wean itself off its dependence on foreign oil by expanding home-grown industries like biofuels and wind energy.

“We send over $1.5 billion a day to three countries that support terrorism that hate us,” Walz said. “This is a solution that can come right from Minnesota. This can be solved and cap-and trade is simply a start on that.”

To be sure, both parties are trying hard in the rural 1st Congressional District race to connect the other side to issues that are tainted by association with Washington elites. The Minnesota DFL Party criticized Demmer for picking a “Washington insider” when former U.S. Rep. and high-powered D.C. lobbyist Vin Weber was named chairman of his campaign.

Among the smorgasbord of options that both parties are trying out in the race, cap-and-trade is a key issue that Republicans are using to undermine Walz’s standing in the heavily agricultural 1st Congressional District.

Economists and agriculture policy experts, who themselves disagree passionately about the pros and cons of pursuing a cap-and-trade system to curb carbon emissions, agree that it will take a lot of time to determine which side is right.

But for campaigns focused on the November general election – especially races like Minnesota CD 1, which national Republicans have set their sights on winning – the rhetoric isn’t taking a wait-and-see approach. Demmer, who last month was designated a “contender” by the National Republican Campaign Committee, drew applause from the FarmFest crowd for comments on ethanol and education.

DFLers, meanwhile, say they’re confident that Walz, a retired National Guard command sergeant major and Mankato school teacher, has established himself as an ally of farmers.

Paul Sobincki, a DFL activist and farmer from Wabasso, noted that Walz was involved in winning key concessions for agriculture in the cap-and-trade bill. Those concessions, championed mainly by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson of Minnesota , provided exemptions for agriculture.

“He’s authored legislation to get the young people of the future out here in agriculture. He’s been right on the energy policy,” Sobicinski said.

Minnesota Republicans are banking on collateral damage to Walz from the national backlash against a Democratic White House and Congress.  The Republican Party of Minnesota has been stressing this week that Walz’s fortunes are tied to those of President Barack Obama, whose approval ratings in Minnesota slipped in the latest Star Tribune poll.  Although the poll didn’t survey Walz’s public approval, the Minnesota GOP issued a press release that said the “numbers clearly spell trouble” for Walz.

The district has appeal for Republicans, because it was held by Republican Gil Gutknecht for several years before Walz’s election. Several state legislative districts in the area lean Republican.

But DFLers likely benefit from the changing trends in Rochester, where DFL legislative candidates won a handful of legislative seats from Republicans in the last couple of election cycles. In 2008 Obama won the 1st Congressional District with 51 percent to GOP presidential nominee John McCain’s 46.6 percent. That was a tighter margin than the statewide average of 54 percent for Obama and 43.8 percent for McCain.

Jack Geller is a University of Minnesota-Crookston professor who used to direct the Mankato-based Center for Rural Policy and Development and still lives in Mankato. He said Demmer will need to do more than link Walz to Obama and national politics to be successful.

“I think there’s definitely anger at Obama on the Republican side and disappointment on the independent side,” said Geller. “Will that have an effect on some voters as they look at Walz and Demmer? Yeah. It would certainly suggest there is favorability for Republicans over Democrats with all things being equal. But as that plays out in any particular race, I don’t think it’s enough.”

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