WASHINGTON –Former Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue may be well-known in Georgia, but to key members of the Senate he’s a blank slate — for now — and that may be a good thing.
Prior to President-elect Donald Trump formally tapping Perdue as his secretary of agriculture, key members of the Senate Agriculture Committee, the panel that will ultimately vet his nomination, indicated they knew little about the Georgia mainstay.
That relative blank slate could work to his advantage as he looks to sell himself to individual senators in the weeks ahead.
“I’d be very willing to listen,” said Arkansas Republican John Boozman, a member of the committee. “From what I hear he’s a very thoughtful guy, a very hard worker and is a guy that is really good with the issues, so I think he’d be a very viable candidate.”
More than most other policy areas on Capitol Hill, agriculture often falls less along partisan lines than it does on regional ones.
When it comes to the senior Democrats on the Agriculture committee, Perdue may have more room to sell himself than, say, fellow Georgian and Cabinet nominee Tom Price, whose Washington track record is long and hard to hide from.
“We’ll have to wait and see,” said Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the panel’s top Democrat. “I don’t really know him so we’ll have to take a look at what he’s ideas are.”
Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey said he’d need to make sure a pick like Perdue was “going to be responsive to the concerns I have about Pennsylvania” before he decides to back him.
But he’ll also have to contend with a panel that’s led by Midwesterners, a voting bloc that’s used to having a native son as agriculture secretary for the better part of the last two decades. (Rumor has it that GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley’s tweet about a fellow Iowan whom he thought should be agriculture chief is what contributed to Trump’s delay in announcing his pick.)
When asked about whether he’d be open to supporting Perdue earlier this week, Grassley said he didn’t know the former governor.
Perdue heads into the Senate confirmation process with several key allies in the upper chamber.
He has genetics in common with his most prominent cheerleader, first cousin and Georgia U.S. David Perdue, who also happens to sit on the Agriculture Committee.
“I am confident Sonny will work hard to advance smart agriculture policies that will help our farmers, ranchers and rural communities across the country,” Perdue said in a statement.
He also has long-standing relationships with many of the dozen former state governors who are now U.S. senators through his work at the Republican and national governors associations, including North Dakota Republican John Hoeven, another member of the Agriculture panel.
He’s also admired by the committee’s chairman, Pat Roberts, R-Kan., even though the two do not know one another.
“I think he’s a fine candidate,” said Robert earlier this month.
If confirmed, Perdue would be positioned at the center of preliminary discussions over the 2018 farm bill, mammoth legislation that will set aside hundreds of billions of dollars for crop subsidies and insurance, food stamps and international food aid.
Already, powerful agriculture groups are signaling their support. Zippy Duvall, head of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said his nomination was “welcome news” to the nation’s farmers and ranchers.
“He understands the challenges facing rural America because that’s where he was born and raised,” said Duvall, also a Georgian. “He is a businessman who recognizes the impact immigration reform, trade agreements and regulation have on a farmer’s bottom line and ability to stay in business from one season to the next.”
He’ll also face criticism from some green groups. The Environmental Working Group, an conservation advocacy, urged a careful vetting.
“We hope the Senate will look closely at these subsidies as well as at the political contributions Gov. Perdue has received from food giants, farm chemical companies and farm lobbyists, and ask whether he will help fix or help defend a subsidy system rigged against family farmers and the environment,”said Scott Faber, a lobbyist with the group, said in a statement.
Read more: Trump taps Perdue as agriculture chief