Thursday, Sep. 23, 2010

North Dakota's Congressional Seat: Earl Pomeroy vs. Rick Berg

Relative to other states, it's inexpensive to put ads on television in North Dakota, and the two men running for the state's lone congressional seat are taking complete advantage. Nine-term incumbent Earl Pomeroy, a Democrat, and Republican challenger Rick Berg are in full attack mode on the state's airwaves.

In addition to ads funded by the two candidates' own campaigns, Americans for Prosperity and the National Republican Congressional Committee are funding commercials pummeling Pomeroy for his vote in favor of health care reform. Pomeroy, meanwhile, is using his airtime to attack Berg for votes related to Social Security and banking that he cast during his 26 years in the state legislature.

Pomeroy won his past three re-elections with 60% or more of the vote, but as with so many races this year, the once safe incumbent appears to be running behind his challenger. Seven consecutive Rasmussen polls have shown Berg leading Pomeroy by as many as nine points. The well-regarded race watcher Charlie Cook has the seat in the "toss-up" column.

Pomeroy's vote in favor of health care reform, which has not become more popular since passage as Democrats predicted, is the major reason he's in such peril. One television ad accuses him of ignoring voters and instead siding with "Nancy Pelosi for Big Government health care." Berg, by contrast, has said he favors fully repealing the new Affordable Care Act.

Not all national trends are being mirrored in North Dakota. One issue that's been effective for Republican challengers across the country, but not for Berg, is jobs. North Dakota has the lowest unemployment rate in the country, at 3.6%, compared with the national rate of 9.5%. The state is buoyed by a healthy oil industry, strong manufacturing sector and thriving farm community. These positive circumstances have robbed Berg of one narrative that's helping challengers like Republican Sharron Angle in Nevada, who's trying to convince voters that incumbent Democratic Senator Harry Reid is to blame for that state's high unemployment rate.

Though incumbency has been a burden for many candidates this year, Pomeroy has done his best to make a virtue of it. He sits on the House Committee on Agriculture, a key perch for a farm state like North Dakota, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently appeared with Pomeroy at a fundraiser on a local farm.

Still, despite appearing with a top Obama Administration official, Pomeroy is simultaneously trying hard to distance himself from his party, an awkward two-step that has him bragging about his Washington power while claiming to be independent of the Beltway. One Pomeroy ad focuses solely on an instance in which he voted against an item on the Democratic agenda: cap-and-trade climate-reform legislation. Another ad has Pomeroy telling viewers, "We're a long ways from Washington out here — just the way we like it."

Pomeroy's war chest gives him a formidable advantage. The incumbent had about $1.7 million on hand as of June 30, the most recent public filing; Berg had $750,000. Berg, however, has been identified as a member of the National Republican Campaign Committee's "Young Guns" program, which provides strategic and fundraising support, and some GOP standard bearers have campaigned with him to raise money, including House minority leader John Boehner and presumptive 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Having representing his state since 1992, Pomeroy is apparently so familiar to his constituents — a liability in an anti-incumbent year like 2010 - that he doesn't even have a standard bio link on the homepage for his re-election campaign. Berg, despite more than two decades in the state legislature, was lesser known statewide before this contest, a fact highlighted in one of Pomeroy's negative television ads, which features the tag line, "Who is Rick Berg?"

One advantage Berg could have in the upcoming election, however, is another person running on his ticket. John Hoeven, the state's popular Republican governor, credited with keeping the state economy strong, seems headed for a landslide in the race to replace retiring Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan. With Republican voters already leading Democrats in the all-important enthusiasm gap, the top-ticket momentum could help draw even more Republican voters to the polls.