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Associated Press, Published November 06 2012

ND voters say economy a concern, despite oil boom

BISMARCK — The boom in North Dakota's oil region has made the state's economy the envy of many in the nation, but some voters said Tuesday that the benefits hadn't been shared equally and concerns about employment drove their voting decisions.

North Dakota has risen from the nation's ninth-leading oil producer to No. 2 behind Texas in just six years, with advanced horizontal drilling techniques in the rich Bakken shale and Three Forks formations in the western part of the state. The industry has added thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars to the state economy.

But Rick Meier said he still sees plenty of people who are down on their luck at the Bismarck pawn shop where he works. A former Republican, Meier, 55, said he voted a straight Democratic ticket this year because he doesn't think four years have been long enough for President Barack Obama to fix problems that he inherited.

"I don't think people realize how bad it really is," Meier said. "There are a lot of hungry people out here."

Eric Rudrud, a 63-year-old state Transportation Department employee, said he also was concerned about the economy — and that's why he voted Republican.

"The way things are right now, we're not moving ahead," Rudrud said. "We need to do things to get people employed."

Management of North Dakota's economy has been the focus of the governor's race in which Republican incumbent Jack Dalrymple is seeking his first full term. Dalyrmple, a former lieutenant governor, succeeded Republican Gov. John Hoeven when Hoeven was elected to the Senate two years ago.

Dalyrmple maintains he's done a good job of managing the state's economy growth by balancing spending on public works with tax cuts. But his opponent, Democratic state Sen. Ryan Taylor, says more state money could go to help local governments deal with problems created by oil-related development.

The U.S. Senate race between GOP U.S. Rep. Rick Berg and Democrat Heidi Heitkamp also has received a lot of attention, as Republicans have been banking on Berg to take the seat held by retiring Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad for 26 years to help give them control of the chamber. Voters were also deciding races for U.S. House, the Legislature and other statewide offices, as well as five ballot issues, including proposals to protect farming rights and impose harsher criminal penalties for cruelty to dogs, cats and horses.

North Dakota residents broke a record for early voting. Nearly 130,000 people had already voted before the polls opened on Election Day, Secretary of State Al Jaeger said. That broke the record set in 2008 by about 10,000 votes.

Jaeger said Tuesday that he expected voter turnout in the state to be similar to what it was in the presidential elections four years ago and eight years ago — about 64 percent or 65 percent of eligible voters.

There are about 36,000 more people of legal voting age in North Dakota than there were in 2008, because of a population increase tied to the state's good economy.

"Even though our numbers go up, will the (turnout) percentage go up? That remains to be seen," Jaeger said.

The northwestern North Dakota town of Ray has seen its population increase from 500 to more than 1,200 in the past four years because of the oil boom in the region.

"It's been busy," City Auditor Kim Steffan said of Tuesday's voter turnout. "I know pretty much everybody in town and there have been more locals than oil workers. I expect a big rush when a lot of them (oil workers) get off work."

The long, contentious campaign for Senate drew to a close as Berg and Heitkamp thanked party volunteers and did some glad-handing Tuesday. Neither held campaign events, campaign spokesmen said. North Dakota has long had a law barring campaigning on Election Day. A federal judge put it on hold several weeks ago, but many candidates elected to observe it anyway.

Berg, a 53-year-old property developer from Fargo, has been trying to make history by becoming the first North Dakota congressman since 1960 to make the jump to the Senate after just one term in the House. He is competing with Heitkamp, a 57-year-old former state tax commissioner and attorney general, to replace Democrat Kent Conrad, who is retiring from the Senate after 26 years.

Much of Berg's campaign has focused on Heitkamp's support for Democrat President Barack Obama and his health care overhaul. The president did not carry heavily Republican North Dakota in 2008 and was not expected to this year.

Sol Wezelman, 94, a retired Bismarck insurance salesman, walked several blocks to the state Capitol early Tuesday to cast his vote for Berg.

"A vote for Heidi would have been a vote for Obama," he said.

Heitkamp voted with her 22-year-old son, Nathan Lange, at a bowling alley in Mandan on Tuesday morning.

"It feels real good," she said of her chances in the race.

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Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.