WASHINGTON -- The winds of political change blow easily across southern Minnesota, a rolling patchwork of tidy farms, small-town manufacturing plants and proudly independent political leanings.
This year, change came late for paralegal Sandy Abild. A Mankato mother of two, Abild is married to a lifelong construction worker who has been out of work nearly a year. When her husband finally got called to work on a wind turbine project funded by the federal Recovery Act of 2009, Abild's first thought was: It's about time.
"It took a long time for the money to filter here," Abild said. "It helped put my husband back to work, but there are still a lot of people looking for jobs."
In the midst of an economy that's expected to send dozens of congressional Democrats packing this fall, a swing district like Minnesota's First -- sitting atop Iowa from South Dakota to Wisconsin -- presents one of the best chances for a Republican pickup in the state.
Analysts on both sides say it would take a strong Republican blow for GOP state Rep. Randy Demmer to dislodge two-term Democrat Tim Walz. But in an election season shadowed by persistently high unemployment, no one is taking anything for granted.
"It's on everybody's mind," said Walz, whose job it is to convince voters that better times are coming. "The good news is we're blessed in not having the severe unemployment the rest of the nation has."
Joblessness in the region remains a few ticks below the nation's 9.6 percent unemployment rate -- the worst in decades. But Republicans still sense an opening and have focused relentlessly on Walz's vote for the Recovery Act, the Obama administration's $787 billion economic stimulus package.
"Government spending and the stimulus simply is not the job creator we were promised," Demmer says. "It's failing." The government estimates that 60,000 jobs have been created or saved in Minnesota through the stimulus package.
Walz says that the Democrats who control Congress inherited a bad situation and averted a much worse one through the jobs programs and middle-class tax cuts provided by the stimulus bill.
"When [House GOP Leader] John Boehner says no jobs were created, I can disprove that in every school in the district, in every fire department and in every police station," Walz said. "I can walk down Main Street in St. Peter and look at flood control projects that we put in and made a difference."
Walz, a political newcomer in 2006, knows about political crosswinds. He defeated six-term GOP incumbent Gil Gutknecht, who himself blew into Congress as part of the 1994 Republican Revolution. The district voted for Republican President George W. Bush twice before going for President Obama in 2008.
Amid a checkerboard quilt of recession stories, the Walz campaign has been seeking out bright spots like Angie's Kettle Corn in North Mankato, which started out of a garage and now supplies popcorn at Twins baseball games, adding reams of jobs in the process.
Demmer has countered with a "Jobs and Economy Tour" that bores in on the concerns of business leaders in cities like Mankato, Owatonna and Rochester, where Demmer dropped in on Seneca Foods, a growing national food processor.
Between the campaign stops, the facts on the ground are mixed. Southern Minnesota's powerhouse farm economy is doing just fine, thank you. But manufacturing is not.
Walz dodged a bullet in late September when the influential Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation, which often goes Republican, decided to stay out of the Walz-Demmer fray, despite some farmers' unhappiness with climate change legislation that Walz supported.
Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap, a Blue Earth County farmer who describes his politics as "agriculture," said farmers usually feel the economic pain first, but now are "feeling the recovery a little earlier."
Things are much less comfortable in the construction trades, where unemployment still hovers at a numbing 35 percent. Mike Meyer, a carpenter from Dodge Center, Minn., figures he would be among those if not for his job on a bridge replacement project in Rochester funded by the Recovery Act. "It's keeping me working," he said.
Still, the construction lull that put Bruce and Sandy Abild through a long, lean year of no-frills living and credit card debt has produced a mixture of anger and apathy. Sandy Abild describes herself as "neutral" in politics and on the fence in the congressional race.
Wesley Urevig, president of the Southeastern Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council, says jobless workers blame both parties for economic woes that have been mounting through Republican and Democratic administrations.
"There's a sense, at least in the building trades, that there's just not that much help out there," Urevig said. "While the rest of the country was in a recession, the construction industry was in a depression, and it still is."
'Party politics is frustrating'
That loss of faith seems to have infected the business community as well.
"Party politics is frustrating, maddening and absolutely inefficient," said Dave Coughlan, a residential developer in Mankato who describes himself as a "fence hopper" in the congressional race.
He sees no solutions coming from Washington that would inspire enough confidence in the local business climate for him to start a new project. "A lot of people would like to see the confidence in the consumer market come back," Coughlan said. "Right now, we're a coupon-clipping society in southern Minnesota."
The Republican prescription of across-the-board tax cuts and less regulation can be expected to play well with the Chamber of Commerce set. But to broaden their message, GOP candidates like Demmer also have been playing to voters' anxieties about Washington's debt problems.
First District GOP Party Chairman Steve Perkins, a semiretired farmer in Luverne, says the debt issue resonates particularly well with the agricultural southwest corner of the state. "You can't spend more than you take in," he said. "People in the short grasslands have that figured out."
If Walz stays ahead of the Republican storm many see coming, it will be with the help of his populist vote against the Bush administration's bailout of Wall Street, which, ironically, many economists credit with keeping the financial system afloat. Walz has also actively campaigned against the deficit, arguing that the Recovery Act has warded off a "second Great Depression," providing jobs to grow the economy.
Next to Walz's vote for the stimulus package, the most economically important vote for southern Minnesota was the one he cast for Obama's health care overhaul. The overhaul could have enormous consequences for the world-class Mayo Clinic in Rochester, a symbol of the region's vibrant health care and research industry.
In the face of withering ideological criticism from conservatives, Walz has sought to connect the health care bill to the Mayo model of quality-based financial incentives in health care, an approach that Democrats hope will pay economic dividends.
Whether it pays dividends at the polls remains to be seen.
Health care advocate Betty Winkworth, who took part in a kitchen-table forum with Walz a year ago, says she understands the economic squeeze that forced her own daughter to seek work in Chicago. She believes that the health care bill is part of the solution, although she knows not everyone is convinced.
"I understand the anger," Winkworth said. "But I hate to see it taken out on a Congress that really did, in my mind, a brave thing. They knew it would be risky."
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington bureau.