From all appearances, Rep. Earl Pomeroy was the wrong guy, at the wrong place, in the wrong year — with the wrong message.
“Sometimes you look at Washington and only negative things come to mind,” Pomeroy said in a speech to coal executives last week. “I want to give you some positive thoughts.”
Coming from a nine-term Democratic congressman in this conservative-leaning state, kind words about Washington would seem to be political suicide. All things considered, Pomeroy should be a goner — and he may yet lose in November, when Republicans are expected to win dozens of Democratic-held seats.
But at least for the moment, polls show Pomeroy to be in a competitive race against challenger Rick Berg, who at one time was expected to coast to victory.
“We’re still in this race,” Pomeroy said. “We’re still in there fighting.”
Here, as well as in other pockets of America, House Democrats in conservative-leaning districts have dug in, fought back and begun to reverse declining poll numbers and poor favorability ratings, developing what they believe are winning messages in a hostile political environment.
Their cumulative efforts could blunt some of the predicted GOP gains next month, Democrats hope, showing that even a powerful wave can run up against break walls. Like better-known Democratic Senate counterparts who are mounting comebacks or are ahead of their GOP rivals in California, Connecticut and elsewhere, some House Democrats are cutting across the election-year grain.
“They’ve been able to get voters to focus on their own record, on how they’re different from the national party,” said Nathan Gonzales, an analyst for the Rothenberg Political Report. “They’ve been able to localize their races where they still have a fighting chance in November. They’ve managed to hold off the Republican wave to this point.”
The Dakotas, with a base of conservative white voters distrustful of the federal government, would seem an unlikely proving ground for Democratic hopes. But along with Pomeroy, Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota, another incumbent, now appears to have the wind at her back.
Like other incumbents nationally, Pomeroy and Herseth Sandlin survive by leveraging their experience and seniority on Capitol Hill, while relying on years of goodwill earned with business groups and voters.
Other Democratic incumbents, such as Reps. Scott Murphy and Michael Arcuri in upstate New York and Dina Titus in Las Vegas, are first-termers who have shown surprising staying power by staying locked on economic issues.
Elsewhere, lawmakers such as Reps. Bobby Bright of Alabama and Joe Donnelly of Indiana have distanced themselves from President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) at every opportunity in a bid to woo independents. Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia, a 28-year veteran from coal country, is leading in his race despite taking an unpopular stand in favor of the so-called cap-and-trade climate bill.
Still others, such as Reps. Walt Minnick of Idaho and Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, appear to have an edge because they drew a “tea party” challenger instead of a more mainstream Republican, allowing them to capture support from moderate voters.
Murphy hasn’t yet served a full term in Congress. He won a special election in 2009 in a moderate district in upstate New York — and then voted for the cap-and-trade bill and the healthcare overhaul, which, according to the prevailing narrative of the 2010 election, should have doomed him.
Instead, Murphy is pulling away from his GOP challenger, Chris Gibson. A former venture capitalist, Murphy has focused on job creation. And like almost every Democrat in a difficult race, he has emphasized his independence from his party.
“Scott’s background as a businessman gives him credibility on today’s No. 1 issue, the economy,” said spokesman Josh Schwerin, adding that Murphy visited all 137 towns in the district in his first year.
Murphy also has shown himself to be a prodigious fundraiser, bringing in more than $5 million since he became a candidate.
Indeed, many Democrats who are remaining competitive are doing so because they have the financial resources to combat not only their local GOP adversary, but money from national third-party groups, which are spending millions this year pummeling Democrats on the airwaves.
Murphy’s travels in his district may be paying off.
For members of the House, the maxim “all politics is local” is more than a cliché; it’s an article of faith. It has taken on added importance in a year when Republicans are stoking voter frustration with the Obama- and Pelosi-led Democratic agenda.
For Boucher, it means pointing to his history of aiding economic development in his southwestern Virginia district, talking up his anti-healthcare vote, and deflecting criticism over the climate bill. “My focus is local — on my direct representation of this district,” he said.
“It’s not going to be a [Republican] wave. I’ve seen no signs of it,” he said. “We do anticipate winning.”
A year ago, that prediction would have seemed almost heretical. The same would be true for Herseth Sandlin, who was down in the polls to charismatic challenger Kristi Noem.
Herseth Sandlin, a moderate who recently received the endorsement of the National Rifle Assn. and who voted against the healthcare and climate bills, has been painted by Noem as a loyal Pelosi ally who hasn’t done enough to rein in federal spending.
“She has not been a leader for South Dakota,” Noem said over lunch at a diner in Brookings, S.D. “There’s bad legislation that passed that needed to be stopped. She could have helped with that.”
Viewed by some as a Republican rising star, Noem has drawn comparisons to Sarah Palin. But she has been upended by a different kind of local issue: her driving record. She has racked up a bevy of speeding tickets, leading to warrants for her arrest when she failed to appear in court.
Herseth Sandlin, like Pomeroy, has benefited from the relatively strong economy in the Dakotas, which perhaps has put voters in a more forgiving mood.
“She’s where most South Dakotans are — not on one side or the other of the partisan extremes, but somewhere in the middle,” said a spokeswoman, Betsy Hart.
But even if Democrats manage to stem their losses, with more than 70 seats in play, the GOP could still easily secure the 40 it needs to regain control of the House.
If that does not happen, races such as the one between Herseth Sandlin and Noem will be the likely reason.
“There are always going to be benefits with being an incumbent,” Noem said. “It’s going to be a very tight, tough race.”