Plains Mood: Times Good, but Incumbents in Danger

October 4, 2010 - 1:15 PM

Hope, N.D. (AP) - The recession that has brought misery to so much of America hasn't touched Walter Grotte. His business moving silos and grain bins is prospering, and, like many in North Dakota, he has no financial worries. Life, he says, is "better than we deserve."

But bring up the state's Democratic congressman - a man Grotte voted for in 2008 and in seven elections before that - and the smile disappears.

"I'll tell you what, I've thought about buying a billboard on the freeway between Fargo and Grand Forks with a big picture of Earl Pomeroy and Nancy Pelosi arm in arm," Grotte said, sitting in the kitchen of his farmhouse near Hope, a town of 300 about 70 miles northwest of Fargo. "Earl seemed like a nice fella, but I think Harry Reid and Pelosi got leverage on him some way."

Incumbent politicians across the nation are in peril this year, and the reason is no surprise. Many Americans are not doing well and are anxious about the future. After two years, President Obama and his party's congressional majorities have been unable to dispatch the lingering recession and doggedly high unemployment rate, and now face the consequences.

But in a notable twist, a region that has largely escaped these problems has decided to join in the national bad mood anyway.

Not only are the Plains states of the Upper Midwest not economically depressed, they've rarely been better. The Dakotas and Nebraska are all enjoying unemployment below 5 percent - virtual full employment, according to economists. In North Dakota's case, the money problem is how to spend it. The state's budget surplus is approaching $1 billion, thanks mainly to an oil boom that's creating jobs faster than they can be filled, and healthy commodity prices that are keeping small farmers in the black.

So why are incumbents like Pomeroy in trouble? Polls have shown the amiable 58-year-old in perhaps the toughest fight of his 18-year congressional career, a period in which he has ridden out several Republican landslides.

Pomeroy's not the only Dakota Democrat feeling the voter discontent. His colleague, longtime Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan, opted a few months ago to retire rather than seek a fourth term. In South Dakota, popular Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin has struggled mightily in her re-election race, but was helped recently by reports on opponent Kristi Noem's extensive record of driving violations.

The political disconnect in the upper Midwest shows that just because people are doing well themselves doesn't mean they can't be gloomy about the country. And, overwhelmingly conservative, they think the government is a big part of the nation's problems.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll last month found 55 percent of Midwesterners disapprove of President Obama's performance. The same poll found that 66 percent of rural voters see the country as on the wrong track, five points higher than the U.S. as a whole.

Tim Mathern, a Democratic state senator from Fargo, said many in the state seem frustrated with the federal government and convinced the Democrats are spending irresponsibly. "I think it's there, fairly or not, this perception that something is wrong and nothing is being done," he said.

What Mathern called the "new millionaires" are among the angry, he said.

Last month the Democratic Congressional Campaign canceled $1.2 million in planned TV advertising for Pomeroy, signaling his grim prospects. Pomeroy said he isn't afraid of a tough challenge. "This isn't my first time at the rodeo," he said in an interview. But he said he should get more credit for federal legislation that has helped North Dakota's economy.

In recent years, oil companies have been extracting oil from the Bakken shale deposit, the largest such formation ever surveyed in the United States by the U.S. Geological Survey. The number of millionaires in North Dakota rose by more than 40 percent in one year alone, to 388 in 2006.

But after being re-elected with 66 percent of the vote in 2006, Pomeroy's job is hanging by a thread.

"I voted for Earl Pomeroy and I voted for Obama too, and I don't much like the way that's come out," said Janis LeClair, a 54-year-old former hospital technician from Fargo who retired early from the mineral rights income on her inherited farm atop the Bakken formation. "I have oil money now, and I have investments, and it's really frightening to me what the Democrats might do," LeClair said.

Walter and Donna Grotte acknowledge that the federal government has helped make life in this out-of-the-way state possible. Walter Grotte's Norwegian grandfather staked a claim here through the Homestead Act. At Grotte's silo and grain bin moving business these days, there's more demand than the couple can meet. They've eased back a bit to enjoy their brand-new RV camper.

But Grotte is angry about the federal debt. "You hear about change, change, change," Grotte said. "I'm not for change. I like the country the way it was the last 200 years."