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.
“Our incomes in North Dakota have grown faster than any other state. And that’s what we really need to do, is encourage that, because it lifts all ships,” Berg said in an interview.
The situation makes for a different kind of campaign in North Dakota, where candidates tend to run more positive messages. Campaign advertisements have focused more on biography and personality than a looming financial armageddon.
There’s a similarly strong economy in Nebraska, which had an unemployment rate of 3.9 percent in April. A strong commodities market boosts the agricultural sector, plus state law requires a balanced budget every year. But even there, voters cite the economy as their primary concern in public polls.
It’s a struggle for Democrats to explain, said former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D), who faces a tough race against state Sen. Deb Fischer (R) for the open seat.
“Democrats find themselves on the defensive,” Kerrey said. “Moreover, the focus tends to be more on deficits — and it’s harder for Democrats to make the case that we haven’t contributed to those deficits because of stimulus and [the Troubled Asset Relief Program].”
To make matters more difficult for Kerrey, popular Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman (R) counts Fischer as an ally in state government. He argued that her eight-year career in the legislature serves as a positive, given the state’s economic climate.
“She’s been a leader at our state level to get this stuff done,” said Heineman, the head of the National Governors Association. “There’s a feeling of pride [here], a feeling of optimism, that I don’t always see in other states.”
Beyond Senate races in the Plains, there are competitive House races in a few other states with strong economic situations. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the following battleground states have unemployment rates under 6 percent: New Hampshire (5 percent), Iowa (5.1 percent) and Minnesota (5.7 percent).
But in those states, too, it’s difficult for either party to take credit for a strong economy — especially for candidates seeking federal office. Republicans control the state legislatures in two of the three states, and there are Democratic governors in Minnesota and New Hampshire.
In Virginia, the two parties are deadlocked in a top Senate race between former Sen. George Allen (R) and former Gov. Tim Kaine (D). Polls have shown a tied race for months.
The commonwealth weathered the recession and now boasts a 5.6 percent unemployment rate. That’s in part because the federal government contributes heavily to the state’s economy, from military bases in Norfolk to the Pentagon in Northern Virginia. Republicans also cite the state’s friendly business climate. It’s one state where the government’s stimulus should play well, especially in the vote-rich suburbs and exurbs of Washington, D.C.
“NOVA is 35 percent of the vote,” a Virginia Democratic operative said. “They don’t want to go to war with Washington. They might want to fix it, but they don’t want to go to war with it.”
The outcome of the Senate race is closely tied to the results of the presidential contest. That’s why some local Republicans bristled when Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) aired TV ads earlier this year promoting the state’s strong economy, claiming the lowest unemployment rate in three years and declaring, “Virginia is growing strong again, and so is our future.”
One senior Virginia Republican operative claimed the spots undercut Allen and Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee for president.
“Politically, you want people worried,” the operative said. “Otherwise there’s no reason to fire the party in power.”