Updated: This story was updated at 4 p.m. Nov. 3, 2022, with a statement from Jim Pillen's campaign.
Iowa is one of the most productive agricultural states in the country. It makes sense then that Gov. Kim Reynolds would be a major recipient of industry campaign cash.
But political donations to Reynolds’ campaign in this year’s midterms also highlight a trend: Leading agricultural corporations and the industry in general tend to throw their support behind Republicans, incumbents and those in higher state offices in the Midwest, according to an Investigate Midwest analysis of OpenSecrets data.
While candidates dismissed concerns about the donations’ potential for influence, experts and advocates said political giving can help make friends in high places.
Investigate Midwest analyzed the midterm cycle’s campaign donations at the state level from eight Big Ag companies and nine state farm bureaus across the Midwest. The data begins on Jan. 1, 2021, and is through Oct. 31, 2022.
Of the more than a combined million dollars donated, the vast majority of giving by these companies and farm bureaus — more than 80% — went to Republican candidates.
We examined campaign finance data from these leading agriculture companies:
- John Deere
- Archer Daniels Midland
- Tyson Foods
- Smithfield Foods
And 13% — the highest percentage of giving to a single type of candidate — went to six Republican candidates and only one Democratic candidate running for governor. The only two that are not incumbents, Jim Pillen in Nebraska, who has the financial backing of the previous, term-limited governor, Pete Rickett; and Derek Schmidt, the Kansas attorney general who wants to unseat the Democrat Gov. Laura Kelly.
Rural areas, which are more commonly associated with agriculture and the agriculture industry, tend to vote conservative, said Gavin Geis, the executive director of Common Cause Nebraska, a liberal watchdog of money in politics.
"I think there's just that natural inbuilt bias of rural areas that rely on ag supporting Republican candidates consistently,” he said. “That is just the political lay of the land."
Republican candidates in the Midwest are often trying to appeal to rural voters, and that’s a factor when companies decide who to endorse, he said.
“John Deere and the Farm Bureau see that there is a little bit more hand in glove there when it comes to their interests,” Geis said.
Among the agriculture industry, Reynolds is a favorite. Of the money that flowed to gubernatorial races, $6 of every $10 went to her. Unlike most other Midwestern states, Iowa has no campaign contribution limits that donors must adhere to.
Governors often garner the lion’s share of campaign donations because of the impact their decisions can have, said Pete Quist, deputy research director at OpenSecrets, a nonprofit organization dedicated to transparency in political giving.
“You (donors) can take a couple of approaches to controlling what kind of statutes are passed through legislation,” he said. “One of them is to try to control the chambers of the legislature, or to have friends in the legislature.”
A governor also can sign or veto legislation.
“It’s a lot more efficient if you have a strong friend as the governor,” Quist said of political donors.
The Reynolds campaign and the office of the governor did not return multiple requests for comment.
On Tuesday, Midwestern voters will cast ballots in statewide referendums and races. Michigan will decide whether to codify abortion rights. Wisconsin, Illinois and Nebraska will vote for governor. While voters are not deciding on anything explicitly related to agriculture, the agriculture industry, and its leading companies, are consistent political donors at all levels.
Much of the attention on campaign giving focuses on federal races. Millions and millions of dollars have poured into Georgia, for instance, where the race between Democrat Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker could decide which party controls the U.S. Senate in the back half of Joe Biden’s presidential term.
But state-level spending, especially during the midterms cycle, draws substantial investment, as well. This year’s midterms are expected to set a new record, with more than $7 billion spent across the country, according to a recent OpenSecrets report. (The last midterms set a record with $6.6 billion spent, OpenSecrets reported.) Major agriculture companies — such as John Deere, Archer Daniels Midland and Bayer — donate to state-level candidates.
John Deere, a manufacturer of large farm equipment, donated the most out of the Big Ag companies that Investigate Midwest looked at, according to the analysis. It donated about $180,000 to various candidates, or about 40% of the companies’ total. John Deere officials didn’t return multiple requests for comment.
The second-biggest donor was Archer Daniels Midland, which produces ingredients found in everything from soft drinks to toothpaste. It contributed about 23% of the total donations, including $17,500 to Reynolds.
“Thoughtful economic, energy, rural development and trade policies are bipartisan, and as such we work with public, elected officials across both sides of the aisle,” an ADM spokesperson said in a statement. “All contributions are made in accordance with applicable laws and regulations, and are publicly disclosed. We typically focus on races where we have operations.”
Bayer spokeswoman Susan Luke said all donations from its political action committee “promote the election of responsible, qualified candidates to public office, regardless of party affiliation.”
“We are proud of the long history of the quality and safety of our products and we have opposed bills, ballot initiatives, and ordinances that have sought to ban them, despite their highly regarded safety profiles,” she said, adding the company participates in the political process to provide information to policy makers. “We believe that well-informed decision makers are the basis for good government.”
Other major spenders, according to the analysis, are state farm bureaus, nonprofit organizations that claim to lobby on behalf of all farmers.
Farm bureaus may have a different incentive for donating than for-profit companies, but the result they’re looking for is similar, Geis said.
“The Farm Bureau may have a more noble goal,” he said. “Maybe they don't have profit margins as their main goal. It's not the same as a tractor company, but at the end of the day it’s still influence.”
When Reynolds was running for governor the first time in 2018 (she succeeded Terry Branstad in 2017 after then-President Donald Trump tapped him to be the U.S. ambassador to China), the Iowa Farm Bureau was one her major donors, according to the data.
Recently, the Iowa Farm Bureau has been a force in campaign giving. Only one other state farm bureau has approached the levels of giving the Iowa organization has in midterm elections, according to the analysis. And, this cycle, it has far outstripped any other farm bureau in political donating.
Reynolds has signed into law legislation the farm bureau has advocated for. This year, the organization rallied support behind a measure that would expand access to ethanol, which provides another source of income to corn farmers. In May, Reynolds signed the measure into law, calling it historic. Ahead of Tuesday’s midterms, the farm bureau named her a “Friend of Agriculture.”
The organization, which is the richest state farm bureau in the country with about $100 million in revenue, didn’t return requests for comment.
Critics of industrial farming said donations from powerful companies and nonprofits maintain the status quo.
“It's a vicious cycle because the big companies are rich and can afford to bankroll these state-level candidates because we have a set of policies that already favor them,” said Chloë Waterman, senior program manager for Friends of the Earth, a environmental and social justice nonprofit.
"They're able to even further entrench those advantages, by leveraging their corporate profits, to get the candidates that they want into office,” she continued. “Then (they) make those candidates feel like they're, to some extent, beholden to the interests of the Big Ag companies because their campaigns become dependent somewhat on these donations."
A major hog producer running for governor
Another favored candidate of the agriculture industry is Jim Pillen. He’s one of them — the Nebraska gubernatorial candidate, a conservative, is one of the largest hog producers in the country.
As of last year, Pillen, who owns Pillen Family Farms, was the 15th-largest pork producer in the U.S., according to Successful Farming’s annual “Pork Powerhouse” rankings.
While Reynolds got the majority of ag industry spending in gubernatorial races, Pillen placed second. Of every $10 spent by Big Ag companies and farm bureaus, he received $3, according to the analysis.
Like Iowa, Nebraska does not have limits on campaign donations.
While Pillen is not an incumbent, former Gov. Pete Ricketts, who can’t run again because of term limits, has thrown his support behind him.
Tyson Foods, one of America’s largest meatpacking companies that has several plants in Nebraska, donated $20,000 to Pillen’s campaign. That’s the most money it donated to a single state-level candidate in the Midwest this cycle. The donations made up more than half of their total giving this cycle.
Tyson Foods did not return requests for comment. When asked about the money, campaign manager Kenny Zoeller said it would not affect how Pillen governed.
Pillen Family Farms operates hog facilities in Nebraska. If he becomes governor, Pillen will oversee the agency that regulates waste from such facilities.
“I can’t see how that’s not a conflict,” said John Hansen, the president of the Nebraska Farmers Union.
“Pillen Family Farms is an industry leader in compliance and best practices, and that won't change when Jim is Nebraska's governor. It will be business as usual for Pillen Family Farms and the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy. Jim Pillen is committed to policies that support production agriculture, steward our natural resources, and grow our economy for all Nebraskans,” Pillen's campaign said in an emailed response.
During his campaign, Pillen also has centered claims that “fake meat” will put people out of jobs in Nebraska, another highly productive agricultural state.
“A longtime pork producer, Jim has spent his career fighting the radicals who want to put the livestock industry out of business,” Zoeller, the campaign manager, said in the statement. “As governor, Jim Pillen will use every tool at his disposal to oppose anti-agriculture extremists."
The alternative protein market is predicted to grow in the coming years, according to iPES FOOD, an international panel of experts focused on sustainable food systems. But, in America, red meat consumption has remained stable. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, the amount of pork consumed in America has increased since 2000.
Jan Dutkiewicz, a visiting fellow at Harvard Law School who studies the political economy of meat production and alternative protein, said Pillen’s rhetoric was likely aimed at firing up a certain segment of the conservative base.
“I don’t think most Republican voters are against having an Impossible Whopper at Burger King,” he said. But “the critique signals a sort of identity, which is born and bred rural. ‘I like natural, I like natural food.’ I think ultimately it’s a dog whistle message that is aimed at a very particular portion of the electorate who might respond to it.”
Supporting the anti-regulation candidate in Michigan
The only Midwestern state farm bureau that can claim to compete with Iowa’s in terms of political giving is in Michigan.
Four years ago, during the 2018 midterm election cycle, the Michigan Farm Bureau led Midwestern farm bureaus in campaign donations — more than $300,000, according to Investigate Midwest’s analysis of OpenSecrets data.
This midterm cycle, the Iowa organization has outspent its Michigan counterpart almost two-to-one, but the two organizations are the only ones to spend more than $100,000.
The largest donation the Michigan Farm Bureau has given went to the Republican candidate for governor, Tudor Dixon. The daughter of a state construction magnate, Dixon was endorsed by former president Donald Trump.
In interviews with the farm bureau’s news service, Dixon has said she supports fewer regulations for farmers: “As I travel the state and meet with farmers and producers and processors, the feedback is almost universal: regulation and the regulatory agencies are a hindrance to growth.”
One scuffle over agriculture regulations from the current administration, run by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, focused on waste from concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. In 2020, Whitmer’s office proposed strengthening the permit program used to oversee the spread of the facilities’ animal waste, which can contaminate drinking water, according to Bridge Michigan.
The Michigan Farm Bureau — along with other ag-focused interest groups — fought back against the measure. The regulations would have been overly burdensome, the farm bureau argued.
The Michigan Farm Bureau didn’t return requests for comment. Dixon’s campaign also did not respond to questions, including about the CAFO proposal. Whitmer’s campaign did not respond to questions, including whether she planned to pursue the CAFO regulations again.
How we analyzed the data
Investigative Midwest used state-level data from OpenSecrets — a nonprofit that tracks federal and state political contributions and lobbying — to identify trends in donations to political campaigns in midterm elections made by large agricultural companies operating in the Midwest.
The analysis included 11 Midwestern states (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin) and contributions to candidates in those states for the 2021-2022 election cycle.
The analysis shows donations reported by John Deere, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Bayer, Tyson Foods, Syngenta Corp, Corteva Agriscience, Smithfield Foods, Cargill and the companies’ subsidiaries.
We also considered donations made by the Iowa Farm Bureau, Michigan Farm Bureau, Ohio Farm Bureau, Nebraska Farm Bureau, Illinois Farm Bureau, Kansas Farm Bureau, Missouri Farm Bureau Services, Wisconsin Farm Bureau and Indiana Farm Bureau.
We did not include data from Minnesota because OpenSecrets includes the data at the end of the year due to how these states report political contribution information.
Because the election cycle ends Nov. 8 and donations can come in up till then, the final reported dollar might be different from the totals used in this story.
Mónica Cordero is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.
Investigate Midwest reporter Madison McVan contributed to this story.
Top image: Gov. Kim Reynolds on her 99 counties tour. photo from YouTube video on governor's office website