Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp is walking through neat rows of soybeans in blue jeans and a fleece jacket, with a silo and grain bins visible in the background, talking about the need to put North Dakota farmers ahead of partisanship.
That TV ad, which debuted Sept. 13, is the latest in a series of appeals to the state’s rural voters. She often reminds them that the Republican-led House has failed to even vote on the every-five-year agriculture-policy bill that funds subsidies for farmers. She credits that pitch with helping nudge the North Dakota Senate race from a probable Republican pick up to a tossup.
“Agriculture is still king in this state,” Heitkamp, who is challenging Republican Representative Rick Berg in the race to succeed retiring Democratic Senator Kent Conrad, said in an e-mail. “You can’t represent North Dakota in the United States Senate without fully representing our farmers and ranchers.”
With Democrats holding a slim majority in the Senate, both national parties have shifted resources to North Dakota, a state with a booming economy and lowest-in-the-nation unemployment rate of 3 percent. It is among a handful of rural states where Democrats see opportunity in the stalled farm bill, a version of which passed the Senate.
“If you had asked Republicans a year ago, they would have told you North Dakota would be over by Labor Day, and it’s not,” Jennifer Duffy, who monitors Senate races for Cook Political Report, said in an interview. Democrats “are still in it, and they’re still fighting.”
The failure of the House to pass a farm bill is not the only reason, she said. It has contributed to a narrative of Washington’s failure, something Heitkamp is using to her advantage in her campaign against a House member, Duffy said.
Other Senate campaigns where farm issues could become a factor include in Indiana, where Democratic Representative Joe Donnelly is running against Richard Mourdock, the Tea Party favorite who knocked off incumbent Richard Lugar in a Republican primary, and in Wisconsin, where former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson is running against Democratic Representative Tammy Baldwin for the seat vacated by Herb Kohl.
The stalled farm bill could influence some House races, though polls show that chamber will probably remain under Republican control. It is in the Senate, where Democrats hold 51 seats, that a handful of races could tip the balance of power. Republicans have 47 and need three more in order to control the chamber. Two senators are independents who caucus with Democrats.
Inaction on the farm bill may weaken the GOP Senate effort in rural, conservative states such as North Dakota and Montana that are out of reach for Democrats at the presidential level yet still attainable in congressional races, said Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University in Ames.
“In some states it will be a big issue,” Schmidt said in an interview, noting that divisions in the House between rural lawmakers who support subsidies and budget hawks within the Republican caucus may make it difficult for that chamber to pass a bill. “The Democrats could make a lot of hay because it’s the Republicans that are blocking passage.”
Republicans have shifted campaign spending to North Dakota, some of it from Missouri where they’ve canceled money earmarked for the Senate campaign of Representative Todd Akin, whose comments on rape have cost him support, Duffy said.
Agriculture issues are prominent in campaign ads in the Montana race, where polls show Republican Representative Denny Rehberg leading incumbent Democratic Senator Jon Tester by 4 percentage points. That is down from 10 points in May.
“Jon Tester’s ads all have combines in them,” Duffy said.
Lack of a farm bill has “become a very salient issue in a lot of key battleground races, and it’s highlighted the intransigence and ineffectiveness of House Republicans like Denny Rehberg and Rick Berg and put their misplaced priorities front and center,” said Matt Canter, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
In Senate campaigns, particularly in rural states, candidates can localize their races around issues such as agriculture, Canter said. That enables Democrats like Heitkamp and Tester to woo voters who might vote Republican in the presidential race, he said.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney may easily win North Dakota and Montana, “but that’s not providing a lot of solace to Rick Berg and Danny Rehberg right now,” Canter said.
E-mails and calls to the National Republican Senatorial Committee were not returned.
The farm bill’s delay “makes a huge difference to farm-state Republicans. Just look at the members who’ve been speaking publicly,” said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, an Oklahoma Republican, in an interview.
A version of the bill, which would reauthorize subsidies for growers of corn, cotton and other crops, has been approved by the Senate. It has not been scheduled for a House vote by Republican leadership, making passage unlikely before current law expires Sept. 30, lawmakers say.
Republican leadership aides in both chambers said today Congress won’t move this week to pass a new farm bill or any extension of current law. Lawmakers plan to adjourn at the end of the week to campagn for the November election.
A Democratic-led petition effort to bring the bill to the floor, signed by some rural Republicans including Berg and Rehberg failed to get sufficient backers. The anti-tax group Club for Growth today said it would note lawmakers’ signatures as support for wasteful spending, discouraging bipartisan support.
“I am disappointed that they haven’t scheduled this for a vote,” said Representative Kristi Noem, a freshman Republican from South Dakota, who said she’d sign the petition. “Frankly, I take my direction from the people of South Dakota.”
“Agriculture is not a partisan issue, nor is it an issue to be used for scoring political points,” said Chris Van Guilder, a spokesman for Berg, in an e-mail. “There is no stronger advocate for a long-term farm bill in the U.S. House than Rick Berg, who has pursued every possible avenue to bring the bill to the floor for a vote.”
Democrats are also to blame for the impasse by opposing an extension and refusing to consider a $383 million disaster-relief package the House passed in August, said Rehberg in an e-mail. “There’s no reason the Senate can’t pass the drought assistance the House passed on August 2,” the congressman and candidate said in an e-mail.
When “Washington” becomes identified with House Republican inaction, Democrats will benefit, even among more conservative farmers who still vote with their pocketbooks, said Nicholas Bauroth, a political science professor at North Dakota State University in Fargo.
“Ideology is a lot less important when you’re talking about your livelihood,” said Bauroth.
The five-year farm legislation funds federal nutrition programs including food stamps, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s biggest expense, as well as subsidies to farmers that lower raw-materials costs for companies including Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Bunge Ltd. Both the Senate and House committee versions cost about $1 trillion over 10 years.
The failure of both parties to get a bill through the House makes voters skeptical of Washington, said Bing Van Bergen, who grows wheat outside Moccasin, Montana.
“For us sitting out her in limbo-land,” waiting for a bill to pass, he said, “there’s a feeling that we’ve elected them to do a job, and that job hasn’t been done. It’s pretty much equal blame” between parties, he said.