The most satisfying aspect of the contentious elections in Florida may be the thorough drubbing of heavily subsidized Big Sugar, and the exposure of yet another feared special interest as a paper tiger.
The sugar industry in the U.S. is dependent on government support. Most notably, the U.S. government throttles sugar imports, thus driving up the price. Uncle Sam bolsters that protectionism with a crony capitalist web of subsidies, loans, and purchases of excess sugar. This kills jobs in the food industry (candymakers move overseas where they can use market-price sugar), but it increases profits for the U.S. sugar producers. Big Sugar recycles these crony profits into campaign contributions.
The biggest supporter of sugar subsidies in any Florida race this year was Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who despite a cash advantage lost the Republican gubernatorial primary to Rep. Ron DeSantis. DeSantis is a conservative who voted in Congress to curb the indefensible sugar program — a true act of political bravery, considering that only 2 of his 26 colleagues in the Florida delegation voted with him.
As environmentalist groups ramped up the pressure on politicians to oppose Big Sugar, thanks to the devastating effects sugar growing has on waterways, Democrat Andrew Gillum resisted, pointing (without evidence) to supposedly crucial employment opportunities offered by the sugar industry. BullSugar, an anti-sugar activist group, gave Gillum a neutral rating early on for that reason.
So in both the Republican primary and the general election, the more sugar-friendly candidates lost in Florida.
And there’s more. The only Republican to lose a statewide race in Florida this year was Matt Caldwell, running to succeed Putnam as agriculture commissioner. Caldwell was unapologetic in his defense of Big Sugar, even as this summer came to be known as the “Summer of Slime,” thanks to the sugar-industry-fed algae blooms. And of course, Big Sugar fed Caldwell’s campaign.
It was a bad year for Big Sugar in the state they supposedly dominate.
We’re not positing that DeSantis won by opposing the sugar program, nor that Caldwell lost just because he stood with them. What’s clear, though, is that it’s perfectly possible to oppose policies that enrich the sugar industry and still win statewide in Florida.
This is a lesson we hope Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., takes to heart. Rubio generally supports free markets and usually opposes corporate welfare. He makes an exception, sadly, for the sugar program, which benefits his early supporters, the sugar moguls of the Fanjul family.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, taught the country a similar lesson in the 2016 Iowa Caucuses. While most politicians — from supposed environmentalists like Al Gore to supposed swamp-drainers like Donald Trump to supposed conservatives like Mitt Romney — genuflected before the ethanol industry while trying to win the caucuses, Cruz did the opposite. He came out against their corporate welfare, and he won the caucuses anyway.
Now that DeSantis won Florida and Caldwell lost, all politicians should realize that while the subsidy-suckling big businesses may seem unbeatable in their home states, they really aren’t.