Good years for North Dakota farming, a new technology sector and — most significant — a dramatic oil rush in the state’s west and north have combined to produce an economic explosion that is the envy of the rest of the country — a 3 percent unemployment rate and rising household incomes and state revenue.
How this optimistic story is affecting the state’s unexpectedly tight Senate race to replace Kent Conrad, the retiring 26-year Democratic incumbent, is an open question. But in these tough economic times, North Dakota is the rare place where the heated political debate is not so relentlessly tied to dreary economic news.
The story here is also a good reminder that with control of the Senate likely to come down to a handful of seats, the outcomes may be determined as much by local conditions as by the national debates that have consumed Washington.
“This state has always been isolated, in distance,” said Mark Jendrysik, a political science professor at the University of North Dakota. “Now, the isolation’s been exacerbated by the fact that we’re doing so well and no one else is.”
Republican Rep. Rick Berg, 52, who defeated an 18-year incumbent Democrat in 2010 to take the state’s only House seat, is now running for the Senate, arguing that North Dakota’s exceptionalism shows that Republican ideas on taxes and regulation can work. After all, the state legislature and all elected state officials are Republicans.
“People see common-sense policy, what it does and how it lifts people up,” Berg said.
His opponent, the Democratic former attorney general, Heidi Heitkamp, 56, counters that the boom is evidence of the effects of pragmatic leadership that is needed in Washington, the kind that concentrates on compromise instead of partisan priorities. Federal support for agriculture, a traditional priority of the state’s Democratic senators, has also contributed, she said.
“No political party put oil in the ground,” she said. “No one does these things on their own.”
With Conrad’s departure, Republicans were expected to have an easy pickup in North Dakota, a state that has not supported a Democrat for president in more than four decades — and one in which President Obama is deeply unpopular.
But the state has one of the country’s most persistent records of ticket splitting, and a Mason-Dixon poll from early June showed a statistical tie, with Heitkamp leading Berg 47 percent to 46 percent. Heitkamp led 51 percent to 36 percent among independents.
One reason might be that the rosy local economy has potentially leached some of the emotion from the still-strong anti-Obama sentiment.