Where Have All the Democratic Agriculture Commissioners Gone?

At one time, the statewide office was mostly held by conservative Democrats. Now Republicans dominate.
by | February 26, 2016
West Virginia's Walt Helmick is the only elected Democratic agriculture commissioner in the country. (AP/Howie McCormick)

It's no secret that the Democratic Party has been collapsing in rural areas over the past decade. Clear evidence of this shift can be seen in the partisan control of elected state agriculture commissioners.

Voters elect agriculture commissioners in 12 states. Of these, eight switched their choice from a Democrat to a Republican in the decade between 2001 and 2011.

Today, there are 11 Republican commissioners and just one Democrat: West Virginia's Walt Helmick. In 2016, Helmick will be up for re-election in a state that has rushed headlong in the GOP's direction. He'll likely face Republican state Sen. Kent Leonhardt, who lost narrowly to Helmick in 2012.

Three states elected Republican agriculture commissioners prior to 2001 -- Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas. The eight that switched to the GOP between 2001 and 2011 were Florida (2001), Kentucky (2004), North Carolina (2005), Iowa (2007), Louisiana (2008), North Dakota (2009), Georgia (2011) and Alabama (2011).

In many states, the position carries significant authority. In 40 states, according to the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, agriculture departments oversee the animal industry; in about half of states, they oversee food safety and meat inspection. In 48 states, they determine what qualifies as "organic," while in 43 states they regulate pesticides.

Interviews with political experts in these states suggest that the shift stemmed, in part, from rising Republican success at the ballot box. Many of the states that elect their agriculture commissioners are solidly red. Over the past decade, growing Republican strength further down the ballot -- combined with attrition among long-serving, conservative Democratic incumbents -- has helped the GOP win lower state offices and increased opportunities for the types of rural Republicans who can seriously contest the position of agriculture commissioner.

The GOP has also focused more attention on agriculture offices, partnering with the Republican Agriculture Commissioners Committee and Ag America, a group that works to elect qualified Republican candidates to the position.

What's more, Democratic electoral and bench strength in these states is concentrated in cities and suburbs, where it’s hard to become a credible candidate for agriculture commissioner. Besides, rural voters feel they have more at stake in voting for agriculture commissioner than urban voters do.

The shift can also be credited to fortuitous timing.

For instance, in North Carolina, Democrat Meg Scott Phipps lost her office in a pay-to-play scandal. Republican Steve Troxler proceeded to win narrowly against Phipps' appointed successor in 2004, then won easily in 2008 and 2012. He's up again in 2016 and is considered a strong favorite.

Controversy also cleared the decks for the GOP in Louisiana. Bob Odom, a populist Democrat, had held the office since 1980, but in the mid-2000s, he oversaw taxpayer-funded investments in sugar mills that were widely criticized as boondoggles. Odom dropped out of the 2007 election rather than face an expected defeat to Mike Strain, a Republican legislator and big animal veterinarian. Strain is popular and therefore likely to retain the office for as long as he wants.

Other Democratic-to-Republican transitions didn't involve controversy.

In Iowa, Democratic Agriculture Secretary Patty Judge gave up the post to run successfully for lieutenant governor in 2006. That enabled Republican Bill Northey to win the office, which he has held ever since. (Judge is now considering challenging Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley.)

In North Dakota, where Democrats held the office for all but eight years between 1974 and 2009, Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson gave up the position to be president of the National Farmers Union. Republican Gov. John Hoeven proceeded to name Republican Doug Goehring as Johnson's successor in 2009. Goehring still holds the position.

And in Kentucky, celebrity helped the GOP win the post. The appropriately named Richie Farmer was elected in 2003, due in part to his renown as a University of Kentucky basketball star, said Laura Cullen Glasscock, publisher of The Kentucky Gazette. Over the last three elections for agriculture commissioner, Glasscock added, many rural Democrats "disregarded party affiliation and crossed over to vote for the stronger candidate."

In the Deep South, the main source of the partisan shift has been the same GOP wave that has inexorably washed over legislatures and other statewide offices. In Georgia, for instance, Democrat Tommy Irvin held the office from 1969 to 2011, but "he was literally the last Democrat out the door," said longtime political journalist Tom Baxter. "It was entirely a matter of party realignment. Irvin's grandson ran for the seat as a Democrat and was defeated [by Gary Black]."

And in Alabama, Democrat Ron Sparks decided to run (unsuccessfully) for governor in 2010, leaving the path open for Republican John McMillan to win the agriculture post that year.

"A Democrat doesn't have a prayer of winning agriculture commissioner here in the foreseeable future, so long as the Republicans have done what is perceived as an adequate job and there have been no major scandals," said William Stewart, an emeritus professor of political scientist at the University of Alabama. "The Democrat, just like Democrats running for other state offices, would be tied to the social liberalism of the national Democratic Party, which is anathema in Alabama."

Occasionally, serving as agriculture commissioner can be a launching pad for higher office. In Iowa, Northey is seen as a potential Republican candidate to succeed longtime Gov. Terry Branstad when he retires. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a former congressman, is seen by many as the frontrunner for the GOP gubernatorial nod in 2018. Putnam "is effectively using his position to generate publicity," said Steven Tauber, a University of South Florida political scientist. "As of now, I would put money on him to secure the Republican nomination."

In a few states, the commissioner is especially powerful because he or she sits on important statewide boards. In North Dakota, for instance, the agriculture commissioner "sits on the North Dakota Industrial Commission, which regulates oil and gas, manages the state-owned Bank of North Dakota, and the state Mill and Elevator, as well as a half-dozen other state agencies," said Robert Harms, a former state Republican Party chairman. In Florida, the post is powerful "because the position is one of three cabinet votes, which gives it an oversized role in all aspects of state government," Tauber said.

In some states, the position also carries sway in economic development projects in rural areas and plays a role in shaping federal funding for land-grant universities.

It's worth noting that a large majority of agriculture commissioners are appointed rather than elected. These days, there are more Republicans governors than Democratic ones, and the GOP has no shortage of qualified candidates with agricultural backgrounds. Democratic governors have tapped a mix of farmers, agriculture policy experts, civil servants and the occasional rural lawmaker for the post.

Regardless, agriculture commissioners often act in a technocratic way rather than as partisans, according to Mark Binker, who covers state politics for WRAL in Raleigh, N.C. "There aren't really Republican and Democratic chickens."