Taking Pomeroy’s Pulse

March 4, 2010

Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) has a proven knack for distinguishing himself from his colleagues in Congress to his constituents back home. However, as he seeks a 10th term in November, Pomeroy is suddenly finding it more difficult to separate himself from the Democratic majority in Washington, D.C., and as a result he is likely to face one of the toughest re-election bids of his career.
Former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer (R) said in the past Pomeroy has succeeded in walking the tightrope between the pull of his party and the conservative leanings of his constituents. Pomeroy, Schafer said, would take “one vote that you’re with him on and one vote that you’re not and he’s always been able to balance that.”

That has changed, he said, since Democrats took full control of the federal government last year. Pomeroy “is a great public servant, people like him a lot, but all of a sudden you’re starting to see there’s a philosophical difference here,” he said. “People have come alive and are saying we don’t like the direction that this stuff is going.”

Pomeroy has only served one other term — his first from 1993 to 1994 — in which Democrats controlled both branches of government.

He’s “either had a Republican president or a Republican Congress to blame when things didn’t go the right way,” said a veteran North Dakota Republican operative.

State Public Service Commission Chairman Kevin Cramer, one of two top-tier Republicans vying for the party’s nomination, thinks the race is going to be very different for Pomeroy as a result. “For the first time in a long time he’s stuck trying to defend a supermajority and a president,” Cramer said. What’s more, Pomeroy endorsed and campaigned for President Barack Obama in 2008.

A January Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll showed 54 percent of likely North Dakota voters viewed Obama unfavorably or very unfavorably.

This will also be only the third time Pomeroy has had to run without either of North Dakota’s two popular Democratic Senators, Kent Conrad or Byron Dorgan, at the top of the ticket. Dorgan announced in January he would not run for re-election. Popular Gov. John Hoeven (R) subsequently joined the Senate race and is the heavy favorite to win the seat. Observers also expect Hoeven to have strong coattails.

Pomeroy won comfortably in 2008 — when neither Conrad nor Dorgan were on the ballot — against repeat Republican nominee Duane Sand, and the race was not targeted by the national GOP.

His 2002 re-election, a 4-point win over Rick Clayburgh (R) that also took place in a midterm year, was the closest of his career to this point.

“Having faced serious elections in the past, Congressman Pomeroy is taking nothing for granted this cycle, but we are confident his record of independence along with his long-standing relationships with voters will no doubt carry the Congressman to re-election this year,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Gabby Adler said.

A number of GOP observers point to Pomeroy’s vote in favor of Democrats’ health care overhaul last November as a big factor in his current travails. Polling has shown that the bill is unpopular with the majority of North Dakotans, and Pomeroy’s willingness to consider, and ultimately vote for, the legislation prompted an onslaught of advertising from outside groups over the past six months.

“You can trace all of his problems back to that one vote, all his electoral problems stemmed that,” argued National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Tom Erickson, who predicted it would become the “nail in the coffin” for Pomeroy.

The Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll had Pomeroy topping Cramer, 46 percent to 24 percent, with a large proportion of voters undecided. Former North Dakota House Majority Leader Rick Berg (R) is also running for the GOP nomination.

Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D), Pomeroy’s South Dakota neighbor, voted against the House’s health care bill in the fall, and the South Dakota airwaves have been far quieter when it comes to political advertising attacking her.

“People feel like he betrayed them on the health care vote, that he is too in line with the Democrats who are in control and putting the interest of Democrats in Washington above the people of North Dakota,” said the North Dakota GOP operative.

Energy and Democrats’ cap-and-trade legislation, which Pomeroy voted against, will also be a major issue in one of the country’s biggest coal- and oil-producing states.

Cramer lost to Pomeroy in 1996, and he lost again by a wider margin in 1998. He thinks he is a stronger candidate to take on Pomeroy now. He won a statewide campaign for the North Dakota Public Service Commission in 2004, with 65 percent of the vote. He is now the commission’s chairman. “I’ve grown in the last 12 years … as a public servant and as an individual,” he said.

Like Cramer, Berg has been around North Dakota politics for decades, serving in the state Legislature since 1984. They are the kind of battle-tested Republican candidates the party has failed to attract in North Dakota in recent cycles.

They “have a lot more statewide name recognition and the ability to raise funds” than the party’s recent nominees, said the GOP operative.

Both Berg and Cramer say they were recruited by the NRCC to run, something the NRCC confirmed. Both say they will abide by the state party’s nomination, which will be settled at the party convention on March 20 and 21.

Democratic observers Roll Call spoke to said they think Berg would be the slightly tougher candidate to run against. Republicans don’t see much daylight between the two, saying it will come down to who is the best organized going into the convention.

The national party has already signaled it is willing to spend money on the race: The NRCC ran television ads in November and February going after the Congressman on health care.

North Dakota Democrats, meanwhile, say the roots of Pomeroy’s vulnerability are purely national.

“Even though our state is in pretty good condition [economically], there’s still a mood that’s kind of swept across the country,” said former North Dakota Lt. Gov. Lloyd Omdahl (D).

Omdahl believes that Pomeroy’s campaign experience, including running for insurance commissioner before Congress, gives him a significant edge.

State Senate Minority Leader David O’Connell (D) blamed all the negative advertising on North Dakota’s airwaves — particularly on health care — for fueling a particularly sour mood among the electorate. But he said every Democratic incumbent in the country is facing the same challenges as Pomeroy when it comes to separating themselves from the national currents.