The 2010 midterm view from North Dakota, where the economy isn't the problem

By Rachel Dry
Sunday, October 31, 2010

The economy. That's what Tuesday's elections are all about. It's the most important issue for voters this fall, according to a recent Washington Post poll on the midterms. Health care lags behind.

The high unemployment rate and the anxiety it has inspired have crowded out whatever we might otherwise be talking about this election cycle.

But what if the economy weren't so bad? What would we be talking about then? It's not impossible to find out. Just head to North Dakota.

An oil boom in the western part of the state, strong agriculture throughout and a conservative banking system that offered some insulation from the housing bubble all contributed to a relatively sunny outlook there - and to the state's 3.7 percent unemployment rate, the lowest in the country.

I was there earlier this month, on a road trip that took me from Vermont to North Dakota and its alternate political universe. The first 1,200 miles or so of my journey matched the mood that I'd been told to expect: People were angry.

In Upstate New York (unemployment rate: 8.3 percent), lawn signs shouted, "I'm mad too, Carl!" In Michigan (unemployment rate: 13 percent), Rep. Dale Kildee (D) boasted on TV of his frugality with public funds, perhaps seeking to assure voters that he didn't spend as wildly as those other Democrats. Even in Chicago (Illinois's unemployment rate: 9.9 percent), the heart of what should be Obama Country, a motorcade elicited more annoyance at the traffic than excitement that the president was in town for a fundraiser.

Of course, people were angry in North Dakota, too. But for the most part, they seemed mad about how negative the national political climate has become. It's different there, and the contrast in the midterm election mood helps illustrate just how much the economy changes everything.

All those ads? Not focused on jobs or the stimulus.

North Dakota's sole House seat is the subject of its only competitive statewide race this fall, between Democratic incumbent Earl Pomeroy and Republican challenger Rick Berg. The ads they are running seem to have little to do with the staples of most political advertising today: the stimulus, jobs and the economy.

Instead, in most of the Pomeroy ads that I caught, the incumbent claimed that Berg "led the fight" to let big banks share personal financial information without permission. The challenger's ads, meanwhile, attacked Pomeroy with that most timeless of charges: being too Washington.

Some of Pomeroy's and Berg's sparring spots do mention health care (Berg notes that Pomeroy voted for "ObamaCare"), but in another break from national trends, Pomeroy has been touting his vote for the overhaul. He has one ad featuring health-care professionals talking up their support for the law.

Berg's ads also note how frequently Pomeroy has voted with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and his health-care spot takes the congressman to task over taxes and Medicare. But throughout the candidates' ads, the economy barely seems to register.

It's not bad in North Dakota, so no one is going to run an ad promising to make it better. And it's not good for any reason that a particular politician can boast about.

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