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US mid-term elections: Feeling the blues in Arkansas

Wal Mart voters
Image caption Osceola voters outside the local Wal-Mart said they weren't quite sure who should get credit for the recovery

Osceola, Arkansas is a town filled with the blues.

Both historically - pioneering blues musicians like Albert King hail from this tiny town on the state's so-called "Cotton Highway" - and emotionally.

Hard hit by the financial crisis, as factory after factory shut and jobs moved away, the town's main street is mostly hollowed out, with century-old buildings standing vacant.

Cotton strands masquerading as cobwebs - blown over from the fields dotted with puffy white plants in the surrounding the area - lurk in every corner.

A sign advertising weekly bingo games creaks in the wind, as a handful of people mill in front of the town's municipal building at midday.

Image caption Osceola is on the so-called "Cotton Highway" in north-eastern Arkansas

However, like most small towns around this state that were battered by the recession, things are slowly improving.

Statewide, the unemployment rate peaked at 8.1% in 2010, but has since fallen nearly to its pre-recession level of 6.2% - just above the national average.

But the problem for the Democrats - who are fighting hard to help Senator Mark Pryor keep his position and to ensure outgoing Governor Mike Beebe's seat stays in Democratic hands - is that those statistics haven't translated into sentiment.

As former President Bill Clinton said, in speeches supporting the Democratic candidate in his home state: "The economy is coming back, but nobody believes it because you don't feel it."

Image caption Arkansas is a swing state, where Democratic senator Mark Pryor might lose his seat to Republican Tom Cotton

Big River dreams

Perhaps nowhere is this thorny issue for Democrats more evident than in Osceola.

After years of negotiations, Big River Steel was persuaded to locate their billion-dollar steel factory on the banks of the Mississippi in the city, lured by incentives promoted by both local and state-wide Democratic officials.

Image caption Once completed, the plant is expected to employ over 450 people at salaries of around $75,000 per year

Construction of the plant, which is situated on nearly 1,300 acres next to what was once a Fruit of the Loom plant - a nod to the area's cotton heritage - began in earnest over the summer.

Nearly 2,000 people will be hired to build the facility and once it is up and running, more than 525 will be employed at the plant, smelting steel and sending it off down the nearby Mississippi river to neighbouring states.

Those jobs will pay $75,000 - nearly triple the local average wage.

Image caption Mark Bula of Big River Steel said the decision to locate the plant in Osceola was due to power requirements, location, and incentives

Mark Bula, the chief commercial officer of the company, says that while the main drivers of the decision to locate the plant in Osceola were the cost of power and proximity to the Mississippi, tax incentives - totalling over $100m - certainly did not hurt.

But, he adds, it was also a good deal for the local community.

"A lot of other companies, you can drive around this town or any town, there's a lot companies that have just picked up and moved," he says

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Media captionThe BBC's Michelle Fleury: "Voters here aren't feeling the recovery"

"They can move their equipment to Mexico or some other place.

"For us it's actually very difficult to do. You don't pick up a steel mill and move it every day."

Wal-Mart malaise

Yet despite the arrival of Big River Steel - helped by government incentives - most residents are hesitant to give anyone credit for a recovery that they say, frankly, they still don't really feel.

Outside of the local Wal-Mart - Arkansas is the home of the US's biggest retailer - most were gloomy about the state of the US economy.

Shopper Angela Reuther says things for her haven't really improved since the recession.

"On paper it might be better, but for me it's the same," she says.

Image caption The town borders the Mississippi River, which has long been a crucial transportation hub for industry

That's why despite the numbers, she says she is reluctant to give either party - Democrat or Republican - credit for improving the economy.

Tamiko Allen echoes the sentiments of many when she says that its not just Democrats who have disappointed her, but President Barack Obama specifically.

"He's taking us down, not bringing us up," she says.

That apathy - and general frustration with the president, despite the fact that he has now overseen a US economy that is back growing at its pre-recession levels - seems to be mainly what is driving voters away from the Democrats.

Zettie Sanders sums up the plight of many here.

"My Daddy always taught me I was a Democrat from birth," she says.

"But I'd say he'd turn over in his grave now, because I can't say that I'm a Democrat anymore - but I don't know if I'm a Republican either."

Cotton country

This malaise - and the inability of those in Osceola and the surrounding areas to really feel the effects of the recovery - has translated into swelling support for the aptly named Republican candidate, Representative Tom Cotton.

Image caption Republican challenger Representative Tom Cotton meets voters at the Nucor Steel Plant just north of Osceola

Just up a few miles north of the future home of Big River Steel, Mr Cotton met with a group of steelworkers at rival plant Nucor Steel.

Genial and approachable in a fleece vest, he made jokes - "It's like being in church, everyone's sitting in the back" - and shook hands - the typical political campaign fare.

Yet when he got up to address the group of 30 or so people, he stayed focused primarily on one topic: the economy.

"We've added three times as many people to food stamps as we have to the workforce - and wages have fallen by 5%," he said, as many in the room nodded.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Former President Bill Clinton (left) has been campaigning in favour of the incumbent Democratic senator Mark Pryor

"We need a healthy growing economy - taxes are too high and regulations are too costly," he added, in particular emphasising dysfunction in Washington and President Obama.

Noticeably, the name of his opponent - current Democratic Senator Mark Pryor - was never mentioned.

Representative Cotton even went so far as to single out another Democrat - former president Bill Clinton - for praise, noting with satisfaction his handling of the welfare system.

And that, in the end, seems to be the theme here in Arkansas and in many swing states across the US.

It is less about party politics, and more about the mid-term blues.

US voters seem desperate to cast a ballot more for change than for a political party - for anyone who can make the statistics about the US recovery translate into a local reality.

But for now, whatever recovery his happening here in Osceola feels much like the threads of cotton blowing in the air during the harvest.

They're all around - but barely felt.

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