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.

"No one credits Earl Pomeroy with the oil boom," said Mark S. Jendrysik, chair of the political science department at the University of North Dakota. "No one credits Berg with the oil boom. And [Gov. John] Hoeven has run pretty much on the ticket of 'I didn't screw that up.' "

'Populist,' not polarized

As one North Dakotan told me, the state's residents seem to identify more as "populist" than as Republican or Democrat. The state has had a solidly Democratic congressional delegation for more than 20 years, but it consistently votes for Republican presidential candidates.

A case in point: Hoeven, the popular Republican governor who looks likely to win the race for retiring Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan's seat, has earned the endorsement of the statewide teachers union, the North Dakota Education Association. Normally, the union would go for the Democrat (it hasn't, to the best of Executive Director Greg Burns's memory, picked a Republican since 1986). But as governor, Hoeven was good to teachers, so he's the union's candidate. It's as straightforward as that.

Hoeven's election should be a "slam dunk," according to Fargo's mayor, Dennis Walaker. He's a man who should know about slam dunks: He won reelection in June with more than 90 percent of the vote. In another sign of how non-polarized North Dakota politics is, Walaker, mayor of the state's largest city and a self-proclaimed "closet Republican," endorsed both Hoeven, a Republican, for the Senate and Pomeroy, a Democrat, for the House.

As Walaker explained, he knows Pomeroy and likes him. So even though Pomeroy is a Democrat, the mayor "went out on a limb" and made the endorsement anyway - even shooting a television ad for him. Walaker said he decided to cross the party line because he thinks the anti-incumbent attitude that has taken hold nationwide is counterproductive, especially for a small state such as North Dakota.

"I cannot get caught up in the fact that we're going to blame the president of the United States for everything. I just cannot," he said.

The anti-anti-incumbent state

Most people I spoke with seemed to agree with Walaker. When things are going well in a state, national leaders don't become lightning rods. Berg's ads tying Pomeroy to Pelosi didn't go over well. "I'm hearing a lot more about Nancy Pelosi than I am about Rick Berg," said Shawn Oleson, a Fargo resident who said he was tired of the whole election.

North Dakotans explained that they know their small state has enjoyed outsize influence precisely because its longtime congressional delegation - which includes Sen. Kent Conrad (D), chairman of the Senate budget committee - enjoys the privileges of seniority. One argument I heard for keeping Pomeroy around is that it would preserve as much of that seniority as possible. "Incumbent" isn't a dirty word here - it's a good thing.

I got as far west as Rugby, a small town in the middle of the state. At the dedication festivities for a new wind farm, I chatted with people who had heard Dorgan speak earlier in the day. They gave him a standing ovation and seemed sad to be seeing their junior senator go. They also hoped Pomeroy could hold on, again, because they wanted to hold on to his veteran status and the federal money that status can bring.

When the economy is humming along, social issues tend to gain importance. The most overt political event I saw during my week in North Dakota was a well-organized antiabortion demonstration outside a women's health clinic in Fargo. Most people agreed that the pressing issues were local ones: development, sprawl, flood protection. And, of course, keeping some measure of influence in Washington.

Carroll Berntson, a retired public school teacher, told me that politics are usually kept out of her book club, craft meetings and bridge games - anywhere that a pleasant afternoon could be spoiled. It's not that people in North Dakota disagree vehemently, she said, it's just that it's more polite this way.

What sticks out for Berntson this year is how nasty the campaign got. That's not how things usually go in North Dakota.

"I even wrote a note to Pomeroy - because I'm from Valley City - I wrote a little note saying that I was going to vote for him because I knew he was a good man and I grew up in his community, but I hated his negative advertising," she said. "I just hate it, and I hate that he's going for it."

She told Pomeroy to skip the attack ads and embrace his history. "You have a good record, why don't you use that?" she said she wrote.

In North Dakota this election season, they're not angry. They only get angry at you for trying to make them mad.

Rachel Dry is an assistant editor in Outlook.

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