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N.D. Senate Race Is in Play for Democrat Heitkamp

N.D. Senate Race Is in Play for Democrat Heitkamp

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - August 3, 2012


Most North Dakotans do not like President Obama or his health care law, surveys show. Voters here have not backed a Democrat for president since 1964, and polling forecasts a loss for the White House occupant in November.

But North Dakotans also have a deep history of splitting the ticket. And that, mixed with a strong candidate and a booming economy, makes Democrats hopeful about winning a U.S. Senate seat here, despite the otherwise discouraging atmospherics.

The Senate race figures to be one of the most competitive in the country -- but it wasn’t supposed to be this way.

When veteran Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad announced his retirement last year, Republicans angling for control of the upper chamber saw a prime pickup opportunity. Two years ago, voters booted the state’s lone congressman, nine-term Democrat Earl Pomeroy, in favor of longtime Republican state legislator and former real estate developer Rick Berg. In that same election, they sent Republican Gov. John Hoeven to the Senate to replace a retiring Byron Dorgan, narrowing the Democratic majority in the upper chamber to just four seats. Republicans currently run the state government too.

With Conrad, who was first elected in 1986 and is currently chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, out of the picture, the seat appeared both attractive and attainable for the GOP. North Dakota is one of the four states -- Montana, Nebraska and Missouri are the others -- that Republicans think they can flip to gain Senate control. And they saw their chances increased by GOP nominee Berg, who is running with one term in the House under his belt.

But some of them now concede that the Democratic opponent, former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp, has been able to make this a race. A June poll found she and Berg in a surprising dead heat, and the RealClearPolitics average has the Republican running just five points ahead. Last week, Heitkamp released an internal poll showing her in the lead by six points, but Republicans point out that the same pollsters four years ago found Barack Obama running ahead of John McCain here -- and the president lost by eight points. (Worth noting, however: Though Obama lost the state in 2008, Democrat Pomeroy won by 24 points.)

Observers say Heitkamp has become competitive by distancing herself from the president -- she voiced support for the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline and opposition to the individual mandate in the national health care law -- and running a hyper-local race based on her own brand. Operatives on both sides say she is good at retail politics, and North Dakota is a small state, population-wise, in which voters can meet the candidates face to face (and often more than once).

Berg is making an aggressive retail push, too, crisscrossing the state and selling his personal story. He won by 10 points in his House race two years ago, but his then-opponent, Pomeroy, thinks the dynamics have changed.

“The end of my political career was a testament to extremely problematic math,” he told RCP. “I didn’t have enough Democratic or independent votes to overcome Republicans votes. I couldn’t get to 51 percent . . . in an election that was so polarized.”

That math is different this time around, Pomeroy insists, now that Republicans are in the majority in the House. “[Berg] ran an extremely effective campaign, tying me to Nancy Pelosi, so I was going to get fired unless I could disqualify my opponent. Berg ran a solid but very low-key race. He wasn’t invisible, but it was one of those campaigns where he didn’t have to do much because I was going to get fired [given the polarization.]” In his Senate bid, Berg is arguing that Democrats in the Senate are to blame for the nation’s troubles, and he’s running to change that dynamic.

North Dakota is solidly red, but some current conditions have improved the playing field for Heitkamp. Most notably, the state’s thriving economy weakens the traditional club used by Republicans to bash opponents in other races. Unemployment stands at just 3 percent; North Dakota’s oil boom in the west and its farm productivity have created a bounty of jobs and energized the economy. Heitkamp knows energy issues well. She has been touting her previous attorney general experience -- specifically how she fought against a government land grab during the Clinton administration -- and served on the industrial commission, which regulates energy companies.

She challenged John Hoeven for governor in 2000, but was diagnosed with breast cancer during that campaign. Hoeven won, and in 2010 went on to a U.S. Senate seat. Since leaving the AG’s office, Heitkamp has served on the board of an energy company that converts coal to natural gas. But she hasn’t been on the ballot in 12 years.

Observers say that while people here relish the jobs created by their natural resources, they fear being exploited by outsiders. Both candidates are harnessing the energy issue, with Heitkamp talking about the need to monitor the boom and watch the oil companies, and Berg targeting the Environmental Protection Agency as a threat to the resource.

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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