In historic first, GOP sweeps state agriculture offices

Incoming Florida Agriculture Secretary Wilton Simpson (R) is a former president of the Florida state Senate (AP Photo/Phil Sears)

Beginning next month, every elected state agriculture commissioner in the United States will be a member of the Republican Party, a historic first that reflects a partisan shift in the mostly Midwestern and Southern states where commissioners are still elected rather than appointed. 

The last remaining Democrat to hold an office leading a state agriculture commission, Florida’s Nikki Fried (D), will leave office in January after opting to run for governor this year. She will be replaced by Florida state Sen. Wilton Simpson (R), who won office this year by a nearly 19-point margin.

In Georgia, voters elected state Sen. Tyler Harper (R) to succeed Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black (R), who left office to mount a failed bid for a U.S. Senate seat.

The election results mean the GOP will control every one of the 12 states where agriculture commissioners are elected by the people. 

The remaining 38 states allow governors to appoint commissioners or secretaries to oversee departments that typically have jurisdiction over farming and ranching policy and industries, forestry, food production and other areas.

Not so long ago, most agriculture commission offices were held by Democrats. As recently as 1999, Democrats controlled the office in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota and West Virginia. 

The sitting commissioner in South Carolina at the time, Les Tindal, had been elected to the office as a Democrat in 1982 before switching his affiliation to the GOP. He joined Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs as the only Republicans holding office at the time.

Mississippi Agriculture Commissioner Lester Spell, elected as a Democrat in 1994, switched to become a Republican in 1995.

But in the years since, the slow shift of the once-solid South from Democratic to Republican control helped Republicans make gains. At the same time, Republicans have improved their performances in the two Midwestern states that elect agriculture commissioners — Iowa and North Dakota — in recent decades.

Republicans have held the office in Kentucky since 2004, in North Carolina since 2005, in Louisiana and Iowa since 2007, in North Dakota since 2009, and in Alabama, Georgia since 2011.

West Virginia Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt (R) won office in 2016, the first Republican to hold the job since Cleve Benedict (R) left office in 1993.

Most agriculture commission positions, established in state constitutions, are tasked with promoting and overseeing the agriculture industry, running food safety programs and managing state lands. Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture has the power to oversee some elements of consumer protection; Kentucky’s Commissioner of Agriculture is empowered to increase economic development in rural areas.

In states like Florida and North Carolina, the agriculture commissioner sits on executive panels along with other statewide officeholders. In Mississippi, Agriculture Commissioner Andy Gipson’s (R) office comes with the authority to oversee the state fair, held annually in Jackson.