In the battle for Minnesota's 6th Congressional District, an area that has suffered big job losses and high foreclosure rates, the two leading candidates for the seat say their campaigns' focus is on the economy.
However, absent from both GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann and her DFL opponent Tarryl Clark's television ads so far is any mention of the specific economic woes of the 6th District. The district includes Anoka, Benton, Sherburne, and Wright Counties, as well as parts of Washington and Stearns Counties.
A VIEW FROM THE GROUND
The Secord family was never too concerned about "keeping up with the Joneses." But lately, they'd at least like to keep up with the bills, and that hasn't been easy.
Ron Secord, 56, lost his construction job in the recession. As he described his recent job history, the bitterness in his voice was evident.
"I've worked three months in the past three years, so I'm 'really getting ahead fast here,'" Secord said.
His wife Mary has been laid off, too. Her contract work as a paralegal dried up in January of 2009. Even before their layoffs, the Secords, who have two teenagers, were not big income earners. Mary Secord said she and her husband could pull in about $70,000 a year if each had steady work. But more often, they were making about half that much. To Mary, those seem like days of plenty.
"You at least felt some comfort in the American dream," Mary Secord said. "Even if you were on the lower rung of the middle class, you still could survive."
Mary said before the downturn she didn't have worries about food stamps, food shelves or whether or not they'd be able to get something for the kids for school. Now, they do.
The Secords' situation parallels that of many other residents in the 6th District.
Kyle Uphoff, a labor market analyst at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, said 2008 Census data show the 6th District has a bigger middle class population than the rest of the state.
"About 40 percent of people over age 16 within this region make between $30,000-$65,000 a year," Uphoff said. "That's a higher rate than Minnesota, where it's 36.4 percent, so it definitely shows increased concentration for a slice of middle income."
In addition, only 6 percent of the people in the district earn $100,000 or more, lower than the state average of 6.4 percent.
Uphoff's assessment includes parts of Stearns and Washington Counties that technically fall outside the 6th District, but he said the available data still provide a good, albeit grim, picture of the area's income and jobs.
Uphoff said at the height of the recession, between 2007 and 2009, the district saw 6.3 percent of its jobs disappear. That was a bigger loss than the state's average employment decline of 4.5 percent over the same period.
Manufacturing and construction hemorrhaged the most jobs in the 6th District, leaving people like Ron Secord out of work.
The construction job losses followed a massive building boom earlier this decade, when the district had some of the fastest growing corridors in the state.
"There was a lot of speculation in the housing market, once that speculation came to an end, construction came to an end," Uphoff said.
Uphoff said that's when, in 2007, the area started to see the large employment losses.
For the Secords, the effects of all that speculation have been clear in their town.
"Just drive around the area, you see a lot of foreclosed signs and for sale," Ron Secord said.
Their county, Anoka, along with several other counties in the 6th District, including Sherburne, Wright, and Benton, have had some of the highest foreclosure rates in the state, according to data from the Minnesota Home Ownership Center.
EFFECT ON VOTERS
Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, said how voters react to the economic issues is a factor that's really going to be driven by how they understand the downturn and who's to blame for it.
"Middle income voters who are feeling particularly stressed may be prone to thinking that so much money has been spent by Washington, and yet they're still not feeling the benefit to them," Jacobs said.
Rep. Michele Bachmann is trying to capitalize on that sentiment with a TV ad saying government spending does not create jobs. Jacobs said voters may wonder what Bachmann herself has done to heal the district's economic pain.
He said Tarryl Clark has a good opportunity to broach that point, but also faces a lot of headwinds.
The 6th District leans Republican, and polls have shown a backlash against Democrats who control the White House and Congress. And, Jacobs said, even if voters want more help from the government than Bachmann will offer, that might not help Clark.
"The distrust in government is very high, and voters who might favor intervention to help with the foreclosure crisis in the 6th District and other parts of the 6th District may simply stay at home because they're so dispirited," he said.
The Secords, who are both out of work, do plan to vote. They're supporting Tarryl Clark. They think she'll do more to fight for the "little guy."
But they don't match the profile of what Larry Jacobs said is the more likely voter -- the higher-income, higher-educated resident.
That likely voter could be someone like Mark Finnestad, a financial consultant who lives in Oak Grove. His business has taken a 20 percent hit in the recession, and he's worried about losing more money to higher taxes.
"I just got off the phone with my accountant. We were talking about shifting income into this year just because next year the tax environment might look more ugly," Finnestad said.
Finnestad is concerned that some Bush era tax cuts for high income earners will disappear. He's voting for Bachmann because he believes she'll fight for those tax cuts. Finnestad argues that is what is needed to revive the economy and get employers like him hiring again.
"I'm not interested in representatives going to Washington to bring home the bacon for my district. That's not what I'm looking to Washington for," he said.
Voters do have another option besides Bachmann and Clark -- Independence Party candidate Bob Anderson.
According to a SurveyUSA poll of likely voters released this month, 49 percent support Bachmann -- that's 9 points more than Clark. Bob Anderson had 6 percent support. The survey had a margin of error of +/- 4 percent.