CEDAR RAPIDS | Joni Ernst came marching home from her annual National Guard training into the teeth of an attack on her lack of support for Iowa’s renewable fuel industry.

The offensive is timed to coincide with a Wednesday fundraiser for Ernst hosted by Exxon Mobile Corp.’s political action committee and other petroleum fuel interest groups.

“Big Oil thinks Joni Ernst is on their side -- and she sure isn’t refusing their money,” according to the ad sponsored by the labor union-funded American’s United for Change.

That’s no surprise to Sarah Benzing, campaign manager for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate and Iowa 1st District Rep. Bruce Braley, because “Ernst said she’s ‘philosophically opposed’ to the RFS.”

She is, Ernst says, but until all federal mandates and subsidies are eliminated is “philosophically opposed,” the state senator from Red Oak will continue to support the Renewable Fuel Standard – the RFS. It requires fuel refiners to replace some of their traditional fuels with liquids like corn-based ethanol.

“I understand that we are an ag economy here in Iowa and until we eliminate those subsidies across the board -- every sector and at the same time -- I'm going to continue to support the RFS,” Ernst says.

It’s the difference between a perfect world and the real world, according to campaign spokeswoman Gretchen Hamel.

“In a perfect world, in a free market, she would support doing away with (the RFS), but that’s not the case,” Hamel explained.

Hamel offered a list of pro-renewable legislation Ernst has supported in the Iowa Legislature including Senate Resolution 101 calling on the federal government to “renew its commitment to farmers, lower fuel prices, and the environment by supporting a robust and sustainable RFS.” It passed on a voice vote.

To reinforce her position, Ernst wrote to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy Tuesday urging her not to cut the RFS.

The Ernst and Braley camps agree the issue is significant because Iowa is a national leader in renewable energy, with 42 ethanol refineries and 12 biodiesel refineries in the state. The Iowa Corn Growers Association says the ethanol industry adds an estimated $5 billion to Iowa’s GDP and supports 55,000 jobs.

“As a rural candidate, the members of Iowa’s agricultural community are more to me than just a significant part of our state’s economy -- they are also my neighbors, friends and family,” Ernst wrote, adding she would “passionately defend” the RFS in the Senate.

Jeremy Funk, a spokesman for Americans United for Change, called her letter a “PR stunt (that) reeks of desperation and rings hollow.”

“Ernst should write a letter to her Big Oil friends and tell them to stop spreading bald-faced lies about renewable fuels,” he says. “Or better yet, she could tell them in person when she’s toasted at an ExxonMobil fundraiser (Wednesday).”

The Washington fundraiser will be hosted by View – Value in Electing Women – PAC, the American Petroleum Institute and ExxonMobile PAC along with others will feature female GOP senators. Suggested donations range from $500 per person to $2,500 per PAC.

Braley’s allies point out that Exxon Mobile earned an F from the Renewable Fuels Association based on the fact less than 1 percent of its branded stations offer renewable fuel blends such as E15 and E85. The report did not address the number of stations offering 10 percent blends.

Ernst’s support for renewable fuels and fossil fuels shows she’s an “independent leader,” Hamel said, as opposed to Braley who thinks there’s a “one size Washington solution to fit everything.”

She contrasted Ernst’s position with Braley’s flip-flop on the Keystone pipeline, saying he supported it until billionaire climate change activist Tom Steyer put $5 million into the Democratic Senate Majority PAC.

The full-court press is likely the result of numerous polls showing Ernst and Braley virtually tied and election modeling suggesting Braley is running an uphill race, Gov. Terry Branstad said in Vinton Tuesday. For example, the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage election lab gives Republicans a 79 percent chance of winning the open Iowa seat.

So the Braley campaign is trying to paint “a down-home Iowa farm girl as too extreme,” Hamel said. 

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