Monday, October 1, 2012

The "nice" factor in North Dakota politics

Jonathan Weisman reports today in the New York Times on the U.S. Senate race in North Dakota, a race for the seat being vacated by Democrat Kent Conrad.  Vying for the seat are Republican Congressman Rick Berg and Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, who was state attorney general from 1992-2000.  Weisman's story is titled "'North Dakota Nice' Plays Well in Senate Race," and he suggests that Heitkamp could win even in this overwhelmingly Republican state.  One reason is that the seat is being vacated by a Democrat, and it if goes Republican, the state's entire congressional delegation will be Republican.  But the other reason is that people like Heitkamp, while Berg is less personable.  Here's an excerpt from the front-page story:
[W]ith shoe leather, calibrated attacks and likability--an intangible that goes far in North Dakota--Ms. Heitkamp has made this a real fight. 
The contest--the state's first competitive one since 1986 and probably its nastiest in modern history--features two very different politicians with very different styles:  the rumpled Democrat against the well-turned-out Republican, the longtime denizen of state government against the affluent businessman.  Ms. Heitkamp hugs her way through a room.  Mr. Berg approached a table of women in Fargo on Wednesday and then sheepishly backed off, saying:  'We won't bug you.  We'll just keep going.'
Later in the story, Weisman turns to some North Dakota issues to contrast the candidates' positions.   He summarizes Ms. Heitkamp's platform as one that would help North Dakota, including with issues such as "air service, veterans' health care, flood control, wind energy production and agricultural assistance."  In contrast, Mr. Berg sees North Dakota as able to help the nation because of its current success.  Weisman quotes Berg:
We've gone from a state that has kinda been in the bottom half of the country in terms of our economics and business to really the envy of the nation.  ... My passion is taking what we've done in North Dakota--if you will, the North Dakota way--and applying it nationally.  If we can do that, we can reignite America's economic engine.
What Berg's comment ignores is the oil and gas boom that the state has been experiencing for the past several years--a boom that not every state has the opportunity to experience because of the varying presence of such natural resources.

Interestingly, at least according to her wikipedia page, Heitkamp is a proponent of fracking, and she has accused critics of the process as buying into "junk science."  Indeed, she currently directs the Dakota Gasification Company, a plant that converts coal into natural gas.  Heitkamp is on the record as supporting the Keystone XL pipeline.

Some of her other positions are more conventionally Democratic.  She is for the Buffet Rule via the Paying a Fair Share Act, which would require anyone earning over $1 million to pay at least at 30% federal tax rate.

Both Heitkamp and Berg are married to physicians, but they take somewhat different positions on healthcare reform. She thinks it has "good and bad" features, but "it needs to be fixed."  She has criticized Berg for supporting repeal of the law, noting it guarantees coverage for those with preexisting conditions.  Heitkamp is a breast cancer survivor.  Indeed, her diagnosis came 12 years ago, during a campaign for governor.  Heitkamp lost that campaign, which she largely abandoned to seek treatment.

Weisman's story focuses on how Heitkamp is making the rounds (that's the "shoe leather" reference in the comment above), speaking personally to many folks and displaying her personal touch.  It may seem kind of silly elsewhere, but with North Dakota home to only about 685,000 residents, it may have a significant impact there.

I am reminded of this NPR story from a few weeks ago which noted that, while the Democratic Party is losing ground in the south and while Arkansas's congressional delegation is now nearly entirely Republican, Governor Mike Beebe is a Democrat who carried every county in the state during the last election.  His secret to success:  "being able to empathize with the voters."  The story closes:
If you can make that connection, Beebe said, you can win the South, regardless of whether there's an R or a D behind your name.
Maybe the same will be true in North Dakota come November, though this NPR story makes it sound as if the same is unlikely to happen in neighboring Montana.  There, too, the personal connection is somewhat expected, as suggested by Martin Kaste's report on the race between Democratic incumbent Jon Tester and Congressman Denny Rehberg:
Tester worked the crowd, shaking hands with the kind of small-town familiarity th Montanans expect from their elected officials.  ...A burly guy, [Tester] dresses like the farmer he is.  
In 2006, he campaigned on the merits of his famously cheap, flat-top haircut.  But this year, no amount of down-home charm can change the fact that he's a sitting Democratic senator, and that rubs a lot of people in this crowd the wrong way.  
Each of these stories by a national news outlet--out of North Dakota, Arkansas and Montana--make the point that Democratic politicians in these places are hurt by their association with President Obama, who is wildly unpopular in all all three.  Given that all three are "rural" states by some ecological measures and in the popular imagination--and therefore arguably culturally rural--I wonder what this Obama aversion tells us about culturally rural voters.

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