Democratic presidential contenders Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar expressed support Saturday for strengthening antitrust laws and enforcement to break up big agriculture monopolies.
"You've got these giant corporations that are making bigger and bigger profits ... and they're putting the squeeze on family farms and small farms," Warren said at the Heartland Forum, which was focused on rural issues.
The U.S. senator from Massachusetts called for breaking up some of the biggest farming corporations "so that they not only do not have that kind of economic power, so that they're wiping out competition, so they're taking all the profits for themselves ... but also so that they don't have that kind of political power."
While supporting an antitrust approach, Klobuchar, a senator and Minnesota Democrat, also proposed putting a fee on corporate mergers to help investigate noncompetitive practices.
"If we stifle competition through monopolies, we're not just going to bring up the prices for consumers, we're going to stifle entrepreneurship," she said.
Targeting monopolies was a key part of the agriculture policy Warren rolled out this week, which included a handful of proposals aimed at helping family farmers compete in a market increasingly saturated by major corporations.
Klobuchar and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, another White House hopeful who attended the forum, also rolled out rural-focused policies this week. Klobuchar announced a $1 trillion infrastructure plan that would help expand access to rural broadband and strengthen roads and bridges. Delaney offered a comprehensive rural plan that included proposals to strengthen family farmers and rural infrastructure.
Other White House contenders at the forum were former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, who is considering launching a bid.
The attention on agricultural communities and issues is the result of a recognition that Democrats need to do more to win over rural voters, especially in places like Iowa. The state has long been a presidential battleground, but Iowa has trended more solidly Republican over the past two election cycles, a troubling sign for Democrats seeking to oust President Donald Trump.
"There needs to be a better connection made between politicians and rural Americans," said Aaron Heley Lehman, the president of Iowa Farmers' Union, which hosted the forum and bussed in members from neighboring states to hear the candidates.
In the early days of the 2020 Democratic primary, many candidates are focusing on building that connection. Several contenders, including former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, have campaigned in parts of rural Iowa that haven't seen much Democratic activity in years. Delaney is the only Democratic candidate so far to visit all 99 of Iowa's counties.
That's a key part of what Democrats need to do to win back rural America, according to Iowa state Rep. Mary Gaskill — simply show up.
"There are a lot of people who are hesitant to come out as a Democrat, because they all feel neglected, or abused or shunned by their neighbor," she said.
Gaskill is the only Democratic lawmaker in her area, and represents a red county that went for Trump by more than 20 percentage points in 2016 — but one that Barack Obama won by nearly 12 points in 2012. Now, at least two candidates — Sens. Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand — have campaigned there, a development Gaskill welcomes.
"We might see our neighbors there, that we didn't know they were Democrats," she said.
O'Rourke didn't attend Saturday's forum. But his first Iowa swing as a presidential candidate included stops in small towns that swung from Democrats to Republicans in 2016.
He didn't change much of his message — during the swing O'Rourke still talked about the need for gun control, legal marijuana and a compassionate immigration program. But his top strategist in the state, Norm Sterzenbach, said the key was to bring those policies to people that hadn't heard directly from Democrats before.
"Maybe those ideas you like, maybe you don't, but you'll never know if we're not in there communicating," he said.
Gillibrand, a U.S. senator from New York, recently visited the same swath of eastern Iowa, pitching herself to voters as a candidate who could defeat Trump because she's won in red areas of her state. She, too, didn't shy away from embracing progressive policies like gun control, universal health care and the Green New Deal, and she touted her work on the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," the policy prohibiting gays from serving openly in the military.
Neither Gillibrand nor O'Rourke won everyone over. Tom Courtney, the Des Moines County Democratic Party chairman, hosted an event for both candidates and said he wasn't impressed by their message.
"O'Rourke didn't, and (Gillibrand) didn't make a good case for rural Iowa either — nobody's doing that yet. She was talking a lot of issues that liberals always talk about," he said, citing leadership on the global stage, the president's morals or abortion rights. "Trump got elected by telling people he was gonna fix their lives. I'm not hearing that here."
Some of the Heartland Forum attendees were, however, impressed by the candidates' depth of understanding of rural issues and the policies they've proposed to tackle them. Jeri Neal, a retired sustainable agriculture consultant from Ames, said she was impressed at how fluent Klobuchar was on rural issues. She also appreciated the "hope and optimism" that the candidates showed when discussing policy solutions.
"What I liked about today was they really were willing to think about what's causing the problem, and how do we change that," she said. "Instead of treating the problem, they're really willing to say, 'Why do we have this problem?' And treat that."
But Matt Russell, a farmer from Lacona, Iowa, said he wanted the candidates to have included farmers as a key player in some of their proposals to solve the problems confronting rural America.
"I was a little bit disappointed that there was a lot of description of the problems in rural America, but there wasn't a lot of talk of where farmers could play a really good role in providing solutions," he said.
Russell said he feels that Democrats spend too much money on consultants to help them figure out what strategic policies to promote, and not enough time on actually investing in Democratic leadership and organizing at the local level in rural America. And that remains a key question for Democrats: Will the fresh emphasis on rural issues will translate to added support on the ground?
Becky Bryant, a retired teacher who grew up in Storm Lake and comes from a farming family, said even a fresh effort by Democrats to take their message to rural America may fall flat in areas where being Republican is in peoples' DNA.
"I waited to change my affiliation till after my father died, because he would've been horrified. I had people attacking me because I changed parties," she said.
Asked how Democrats could win over voters like her family, she paused for a long minute.
"When they don't understand that the tariffs have caused them problems, when they believe that Trump is here biblically, it's a tough row to hoe," she said.