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All Over, All Eyes Are on Economy

Matthew Staver/Bloomberg/Getty Images
North Dakota has the lowest unemployment rate in the nation thanks in part to a robust energy sector, but that doesn’t mean it will be smooth sailing for Democrats seeking election there. The economy is still a major issue for voters everywhere, polling shows.

Even in the lucky few states with strong economies, Democrats are hard-pressed to make the good news work in their favor.

North Dakota represents the economic promised land, where a robust energy sector contributed to booming employment  — there’s even a $500 signing bonus being offered at the Williston Dairy Queen. But Democratic Senate nominee Heidi Heitkamp struggles to take advantage of a good situation.

“How does anyone take credit for the oil being in the ground?” asked Heitkamp, a top recruit in a competitive race. “It’s the culmination of the work of a lot of people. And it’s not partisan work. It was scientific work.”

Across the country, Democrats are forced to defend the nation’s economic woes in competitive states hit hard by the recession such as Michigan, Florida and Nevada. Party leaders often respond by saying the nation has added jobs since President Barack Obama took office — even while the unemployment rate ticked back up to 8.2 percent in May.

Then there are a few anomalies this cycle, such as North Dakota. It’s one of a handful of states in strong financial shape with an unemployment rate less than
5 percent. Candidates running there, in Nebraska and in a few other states with strong economies have a different challenge: How do you sell a strong local economy while the rest of the country staggers?

On the surface, a good economy should be an easier sell for Democrats seeking to hold their ground in these states.

“The general Republican argument is about failure, and that’s a harder argument to make in places that are doing well,” said Mark Mellman, a top Democratic pollster working in North Dakota, Nevada, Virginia and other top Senate races.

But in the Senate contests in North Dakota and Nebraska, it’s not so simple. Democrats try to take advantage of the situation by painting Heitkamp’s opponent, freshman Rep. Rick Berg (R), as a Washington insider responsible for the country’s fiscal mess. They frequently point to his high unfavorable ratings among voters who view him as closer to Capitol Hill than Fargo, and a recent independent poll showed the race as a statistical tie.  

“I think he’s pretty quickly become part of the Washington insider and part of the problem in terms of unwillingness to compromise,” Heitkamp, the state’s former attorney general, said in an interview last week.

But Berg, a state legislator for 26 years before coming to Congress, embraces his state’s burgeoning economy and 3 percent unemployment rate.

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