North Dakota’s booming economy gives the political dynamic a rarefied air

The economy is so good in North Dakota, it’s almost like being in another country.

Although Friday’s lackluster national jobs report may have intensified the already deep anxiety among voters about the sluggish state of the economy, here in the nation’s northern reaches, the concerns are exactly the opposite: how to build roads and schools and houses fast enough to keep up with an astounding population boom that has sprung up alongside the country’s most roaring state-level economy.

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.

“It reduces the anger level,” said Conrad, a Heitkamp supporter.

Another may be the personal appeal of Heitkamp, a particular boost in a 680,000-person state — but the nation’s sixth-fastest-growing one — where it’s still possible to personally get to know the candidates.

Heitkamp is the daughter of a school cook and a seasonal construction worker, and her speech is a mix of in-depth wonk and folksy storyteller.

“You’ve got two people in a church pew,” she said, launching into her explanation of why it’s all right to tax the wealthy more to help pay down the debt. “One’s the janitor, and the other one owns the department store in town. Okay? They’re both sitting in the church, and the roof caves in. No one would expect the janitor to pay the same amount as the guy from the department store to fix the roof. And a lot of people would gladly pay it — if they knew it would actually fix the roof.”

Heitkamp was twice elected attorney general and was running a competitive campaign for governor against now-Sen. John Hoeven (R) in 2000 when she learned she had breast cancer.

She announced the discovery at a tear-filled news conference but decided not to drop out of the race, continuing to campaign as she underwent surgery and began chemotherapy. State newspapers printed outdated statistics that showed there was a nearly 1-in-2 chance she would not live into a second term if elected, and she lost to Hoeven, now the state’s most popular politician, by more than 11 percentage points.

Twelve years later, Heitkamp is cancer-free — and many voters here still remember the fight.

‘Really fired up’

At the Mandan rodeo, a Fourth of July tradition that draws thousands under a big prairie sky in which the light lingers well past 10 p.m., Heitkamp mostly skipped glad-handing with the crowds. Instead, she hung out with the cowboys, just off the arena in a staging area crowded with horses and barrels, her head of windswept, wavy red hair attracting comment.

“Did you know that I have two nephews who are 29 years old who have flaming red hair?” asked Rod Nelson, 63, a rodeo volunteer who still rides on the senior circuit.

“Really? How g------ lucky can you get?” she responded with a hearty laugh, a foot clad in a pink ostrich-skinned cowboy boot up on a metal gate.

Conrad, the soft-spoken Budget Committee chairman who gave Heitkamp her start when he hired her into the state tax commissioner’s office in 1981, said her natural sincerity will appeal in a state that values its independence.

“I’ve often said you can’t fake farming,” he said. “It becomes very apparent to the neighbors — has the crop been planted or hasn’t it? . . . There is a real sense here of looking for the genuine article, and that’s what I think makes this place independent-minded. I think it’s cultural, and I think it’s very deep.”

But the day after the rodeo, Heitkamp’s band of supporters was outnumbered by Berg’s when the two walked a few floats apart in the Mandan parade, a 2.5-mile stretch of Americana that yearly challenges the endurance of candy-throwing North Dakota politicians.

“People in North Dakota are just really fired up,” Berg said after the parade. “They can’t figure out why Washington can’t do things like we do in North Dakota.”

He contends the close polls are a reflection that the election is still four months away.

The owner of a real estate firm, Berg represented Fargo in the state legislature for more than two decades and helped engineer a turnaround in the state budget.

Many here fear that if Obama wins a second term, an emboldened Environmental Protection Agency will impose new regulations that will end the state’s oil boom. And there is deep unhappiness with Obama’s decision to delay construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

“We’re very old-school pro-business here,” said Vicky Steiner, a Republican state representative who serves as executive director of the North Dakota Association of Oil and Gas Producing Counties. “In some states, people say ‘not in my back yard.’ Here, we believe that our resources should be developed.”

The Obama factor

Heitkamp has worked aggressively to distance herself from Obama, criticizing the Keystone decision and his failure to make good on promises to unify the country.

But she’s said she plans to vote for Obama in November and would support Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) to retain the Senate’s top post if elected.

Said Berg: “If they want someone who they can trust, who’s going to fight against the president’s failed policies, like Obamacare, they’ll support me. The alternative is someone who has campaigned for the president, supports Obamacare and has endorsed his agenda.”

Many North Dakotans are suspicious of politicians who take credit for what they see as the good fortune of having oil in the ground and innovative companies with new technologies to drill it.

But a good number also think there is a hardworking self-reliance here that does not exist in the rest of the country.

“If you stand out by the side of the road with a sign asking for money in oil country, they’ll throw rocks at you,” said James Goeres, 47, who worked in the oil patch for more than 20 years.

Now he drives around the state selling bumper stickers from the window of his Christmas-light-festooned RV, plastered with his wares.

Goeres calls Heitkamp a “bulldog” and praised her fighting spirit. But among the thousands of car stickers he sells, the politically themed are all anti-Obama. (“Honk if you like Obama — so I can flip you off,” reads one.)

“That’s simple,” he said. “Nobody here likes Obama. He’s anti-oil.”

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.
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