Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

One state sees red, the other's blue

-- North Dakota's oil boom could affect vote -- Minneapolis decides Minnesota result

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GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Ed Rekkedal played it safe on Tuesday -- he voted for Mitt Romney, but his decision was more a vote against Barack Obama.

"I'm against Obama and his policies," the North Dakotan said Tuesday after voting. "He wants to make an attempt to change the second amendment and my right to bear arms."

So, in his small way, the avid gun collector did what he could to stop Obama in his tracks.

"I like to vote in what I believe in," he said as he checked out spotting scopes in Cabela's in East Grand Forks. "It seems you have to pick the lesser of two evils, and I did."

North Dakota didn't figure much in the campaign leading up to Tuesday's vote. In fact, there's only a handful of election signs posted to signal anything is going on.

The biggest story focused more on the thousands of oil workers who have flooded the western part of the state in recent months. The Bakken oil shale boom has turned the mostly agrarian state into a big oil producer, with more companies drilling new wells almost every day. That in turn has brought in thousands of out-of-state workers to power that boom.

The question on many observers' minds going into Tuesday was how much influence would those workers have on the election in North Dakota, a state that's voted Republican in 24 of 30 presidential elections since it joined the union in 1889. In 2008, John McCain defeated Obama by a 53 per cent to 45 per cent margin.

Until recently, North Dakota's population of about 673,000 was little changed from what it was in 1920. But with oil workers from all over the country streaming into western North Dakota, there's a now a shortage of good housing. There are even tales of people living in the cars in a Walmart parking lot. By one estimate, the number of oil workers has increased from 5,600 to 14,000 since the last presidential election.

And under North Dakota's voter eligibility rules, many of them can vote.

"That's the real wild card," University of North Dakota political scientist Mark Jendrysik said. "You only have to live in the state for 30 days to vote, and you only have to prove that you live here."

Where these potential new votes could be seen is in the state's Senate race between Democrat Heidi Heitkamp and Republican Rick Berg, who've both been campaigning in the oilfields.

Jendrysik said he doubted whether many of these new North Dakotans would vote at all.

"They see themselves as coming here, working and leaving," Jendrysik said. "Why would I vote here?"

Which is why, late in the game, the Republicans refocused their efforts on their traditional conservative base. That saw Heitkamp, just a few days before election day, fighting off allegations made by Berg that she wanted to shut air force bases like the ones at Minot and Grand Forks.

Retired general Wesley Clark came to her defence in a letter published in two newspapers. "To insinuate or imply anything else would be a flat-out lie to the people of North Dakota, who have a long-standing commitment to supporting the bases and the military personnel who live and work there," Clark said.

-- -- --

EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn. -- Minnesota, home of the Vikings, the Wild, the Twins, the Timberwolves and a push to ban gay marriage in the state's constitution.

Or so it would appear with the onslaught of TV ads on whether same-sex couples should be prohibited from legally marrying in the state.

It's as if the vote for the next president took a back seat to an issue Canada legalized in 2005. Minnesota was one of four states to deal with same-sex marriage on voting day.

Minnesotans William and Felecia Clifton say that debate doesn't reflect the sentiments of most people in the North Star State.

It instead reflects the sentiments of a vocal -- and well-financed -- minority in the big city of Minneapolis.

"Personally, I don't have a problem with it," William said. "It's something that's happening in Minneapolis, like the debate to build a new stadium for the Vikings. We're completely separated from the city."

Another reason why the presidential election took somewhat of a back seat is the outcome wasn't going to be much of a surprise. Minnesota has generally voted Democrat since 1932 -- excepting Richard Nixon in 1972 -- and in 2008 helped send Barack Obama to the White House. Obama defeated Republican presidential candidate John McCain by a 10 per cent margin.

Polling during this campaign suggested that would not change in this election, but that's again more the influence of Minneapolis on the entire state.

"I think western Minnesota is very much like North Dakota," University of North Dakota political scientist Mark Jendrysik said. "It's conservative, it's farm country, (it) is an isolated rural area."

Where the Democrats pick up their support is in Minneapolis, not in little old East Grand Forks.

"There's a strong rural-urban split here; you can see there are different voting patterns in the cities than in the countryside," Jendrysik said.

The stranglehold the Democrats have had on Minnesota is why same-sex marriage dominated the campaign, and one reason some observers say Mitt Romney's running mate Paul Ryan made a quick appearance Sunday at a Minneapolis airplane hangar.

"Minnesota in the last two to three weeks came back into play," Happy Harry's Bottleshop owner and Grand Forks vice-mayor Hal Gershman said. "Romney made a run at it. I think it changed the dynamics from the same-sex marriage issue."

Jendrysik added same-sex marriage has been a rallying point for conservatives and the Republicans tried to use it to inspire more of their supporters to vote.

Ryan's presence forced the Democrats to send in former president Bill Clinton to campaign for Obama at St. Cloud State University.

Jendrysik said realistically, those last-minute campaign stops likely didn't change a thing in Tuesday night's outcome.

Free Press reporter Bruce Owen and photographer Joe Bryksa crossed the U.S. border on Tuesday and talked to voters about the great divide between Minnesota and North Dakota. While the two states are neighbours, Minnesota is historically loyal to Democrats and North Dakota generally elects Republicans.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 7, 2012 0

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