How the midterm elections might impact the next farm bill

It’s never easy to predict election outcomes with any precision, especially when there are so many different factors at play. But the 2022 midterms presented an especially challenging scenario. One week after elections were held, we still don’t know the final outcomes.

It seems like election “day” is more like election “month,” especially in some western states like California.

Here’s what we do know, as of Nov. 14. Democrats have 50 seats in the U.S. Senate, compared to 49 Republicans.

We’ll be waiting at least until Dec. 6 for a runoff election in Georgia between Sen. Ralph Warnock, who sits on the Senate Ag Committee, and his GOP challenger, Herschel Walker, because neither crossed the 50% threshold needed.

Regardless of the outcome, Democrats will still control the Senate and committee chairs, but Georgia’s Senate runoff will determine just how big Democrats’ majority is.

Historically, the party in power almost always loses seats in either the House of Representatives or Senate (and usually both). That trend is usually amplified when the president’s approval rating is under 50%. President Joe Biden is at around 41%, compared to 53% who disapprove.

Considering these historical trends and add in some high inflation, relatively high fuel prices, and concerns about crime, Republicans were expecting a big night and there was plenty of talk about a “red wave” election. If you listened to the political analysts, even some Democrats were expressing concern on election eve about the potential for big losses.

But other factors were also at play, and, as it turns out, Democrats were able to buck historical trends. They pointed to other factors such as candidate quality and pushed back against those who were in “denial mode” over the 2020 presidential election. Abortion initiatives were on the ballot in five states and generated Democratic enthusiasm in many other states.

In 2022, history provided little guidance.

Democrats exceeded expectations in many parts of the country. For example, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman defeated Republican Mehmet Oz to flip the U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania. In Arizona, Sen. Mark Kelly held off a challenge from the GOP’s Blake Masters. In Nevada, Democrat Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto kept her seat after Attorney General Adam Laxalt was unable to garner enough votes in the state’s most populous urban areas like Las Vegas and Reno. He lost by less than 7,000 votes.

But many voters did not vote straight party ticket. For example, Nevada elected a new Republican governor, Sheriff Joe Lombardo, who won by over 16,000 votes.

What we’ve seen thus far is that a Red Wave didn’t materialize and, as of this writing, Republicans are likely to have a very narrow House majority—if they can eke out a win.

Of course, all of this is happening as farm country gears up to support new and existing members as they attempt to write a new farm bill. The current farm bill expires in the fall of 2023.

Former North Dakota Democrat Sen. Heidi Heitkamp says Republicans have more to lose than Democrats, if they don’t pass a new farm bill. Programs in the 2018 farm bill begin expiring in September 2023.

“Republicans have a much greater interest in getting a farm bill done, if the House Republicans take over the House and they can’t pass a farm bill,” she said during a post-election webinar hosted by Agri-Pulse. “That’s a messaging and talking point for Democratic challengers.”

During a separate webinar hosted by the North American Agricultural Journalists, former House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-MN, and lobbyist Randy Russell, president of the Russell Group, said they are optimistic about a bipartisan farm bill.

Russell said, “the words ‘easy’ and ‘farm bill’ should never be used in the same sentence” but the current makeup that will need to eventually get bipartisanship “creates a pathway that one could see as a glide path to get the bill done, and potentially get it done on time.”

Peterson said the anticipated narrow margin in the House may help bring together the bipartisanship needed to advance a farm bill across the finish line. With his experience as the top Democrat during farm bills that have been defeated on the floor and even vetoed by the president, he hopes legislators will “learn from some of the lessons of the past.”

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Michael Torrey, founder and principal of the Torrey Advisory Group, noted in recent farm bills Republicans have forged ahead on splitting the nutrition title out of the farm bill and allowed Republican-only votes for approval. Speaking on the Agri-Pulse webinar, Torrey thinks the GOP House leadership will likely try to pass a farm bill with only Republican votes, which they’ve done during the last couple of farms bills.

“The question then becomes what kind of farm bill are the Republicans going to need to get out of the House,” which could be starkly different than what could advance in the Senate or make its way out of conference committee, he said.

In any case, members of the Senate Agriculture Committee will likely work to get a bipartisan bill, no matter which party controls that chamber, Torrey said.

Heitkamp said, “You can’t pass a farm bill unless you get a compromise on nutrition,” she said whether it’s SNAP, school nutrition, and she anticipates a big push for free hot lunches.

Heitkamp said her advice to commodity groups is to “just try and put your ideology and your partisanship aside and think about where compromise can really provide an opportunity for you to get the systems that you need,” whether that is increasing export supports, additional research dollars, or dealing with new challenges as it relates to weather or climate.

Peterson said he believes the biggest barrier to passing a farm bill will be the nutrition title. Another potential stumbling block will be climate funding, “because the Republicans are not wild about this” and there are some Democrats who want to push it.

Editor’s note: Sara Wyant is publisher of Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.,