Agriculture Department chiefs tend to come from the Midwest, the conservative-leaning region where much of the nation’s food is produced. Just two of the past eight secretaries have come from outside the area. Using the Census Bureau’s regional designations, 75 percent of agriculture secretaries have come from the Midwest since the department joined the Cabinet in 1889.
The current secretary, Tom Vilsack, and his two immediate predecessors, Ed Schafer and Mike Johanns, all had been governors of Midwestern states before taking office in Washington. That’s a pedigree that bodes well for several — though not all — of Trump’s potential picks.
All five of the frontrunners were members of the Trump campaign’s agricultural advisory committee, a 64-person list that included 10 current or former Midwestern or Southern governors and the “Official Cowboy Poet of Texas.”
Kansas’ governor since 2011, Brownback has had a long history in politics. He was a U.S. senator (1996-2011) and House member (1995-1996), and in 2008 he briefly sought the Republican presidential nomination.
In his time in federal politics, the Kansas Republican collected a total of more than $13.3 million. Only about $513,000 of that came from individuals and PACs in the agribusiness sector, however. Koch Industries came in as Brownback’s top contributor, with its employees and PAC donating $127,050 to his campaigns. For his gubernatorial races, Brownback took just $248,979 of his almost $7.9 million total from agriculture, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
For his own part, Brownback and his wife, Mary, personally contributed $10,970 to Republicans from 1997 to 2007 — though most of that was in the form of donations from Mary to Sam’s campaigns. To date, neither Brownback has made a trackable donation to Trump.
Conner has an advantage none of the others can claim: He’s already held the post, albeit in an acting capacity. Conner, who grew up on a farm in Indiana, filled in as secretary from 2007 to 2008.
He’s been involved with federal agricultural policy for years, though. From 2005 to 2009, he was the deputy secretary, having worked previously for the Bush-era National Economic Council and for the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry from 1985 to 1997.
In between stints in government service, Conner was also on the advocacy side, first as president of the Corn Refiners Association and currently as a registered lobbyist for the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC), the trade association he leads. In that capacity, he lobbied Congress on agriculture and food issues last year, supporting the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, a bill that would restrict states’ ability to pass GMO food labeling laws that are stricter than the federal mandates. The NCFC’s PAC contributed at least $152,500 to federal congressional candidates in the 2016 cycle — more of which went to Republicans than Democrats — and the group has spent $975,966 on lobbying through the third quarter of 2016, after laying out more than $1.4 million last year.
The down side: Conner would seemingly contravene Trump’s pledge to avoid filling his bench with insiders and lobbyists. And while he hasn’t given money to Trump, Conner and his wife have contributed $18,550 over the years to candidates, parties and his current organization. He’s even given to Democrats: In 1998 and 2001, he donated to Senate Democrats Patrick Leahy and Dick Durbin.
Miller may be the most controversial candidate Trump appears to be considering for this slot. The Texas agriculture commissioner landed himself in hot water recently, when he called Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton a “c***” in a tweet. He later apologized, blaming the tweet on a third-party contractor.
His also is one of the lower-profile names on the list, having been a state representative from 2001 to 2013 before winning election to his current position in 2015. He has not made much of splash in the campaign finance world, either, having donated $3,300 to federal candidates and party committees. This presidential cycle, Miller gave $500 to fellow Texan and Trump rival Ted Cruz, but has made no trackable contributions to the president-elect.
In his campaigns for elected office in Texas, Miller has raised more than $2.7 million, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Of that total, $250,631 has come from employees and PACs in the agriculture sector.
The other governor on the list, Sonny Perdue of Georgia, would be the first non-Midwesterner appointed to lead the Agriculture Department since California’s Ann Veneman, who left office in 2005, and the first from a Southern state since Mississippi’s Mike Espy, who helmed the department from 1993 to 1994.
According to CRP data, Perdue and his wife, Mary, have not made any contributions to Trump, either. Over the years, the Perdues have contributed $10,240, primarily to Georgia Republican parties and candidates, including Perdue’s cousin, Sen. David Perdue.
In his own fundraising efforts, Perdue collected almost $20 million in the 20 years he was in office, first as a Georgia state senator and then as governor from 2003 to 2011. Perdue found little financial support in the agriculture sector for his campaigns, though, taking in $855,001 – or just 4.3 percent of his total haul – from employees and PACs in the field over the years, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
If there’s a wildcard on Trump’s list of potential Agriculture secretaries, it’s Herbster. The Nebraska businessman, who owns two agricultural companies and his family’s farm, chaired the Trump campaign’s aforementioned agriculture and rural advisory committee, having been a longtime personal friend.
Herbster’s history in politics and policy is relatively meager. He considered a run in the 2014 Nebraska governor’s race before dropping out and giving fellow Republican Beau McCoy more than $1.8 million for his own ill-fated gubernatorial campaign.
And Herbster is the only man on the shortlist — and one of the few potential nominees to head any Cabinet-level department — to have donated to Trump, contributing the maximum $5,400 allowable to his campaign. He and his wife, Judy, have been generous at the federal level, too, donating $716,650 since 1996. This is a total that includes $90,000 given to land lender AG America‘s PAC, which has not reported any independent expenditures through Sept. 30, $20,400 to Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), the chair of the House agriculture subcommittee and $394,800 to the Republican National Committee.
Researcher Alex Baumgart contributed to this post.