Can Heitkamp Win Again in Red North Dakota?

Can Heitkamp Win Again in Red North Dakota?
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If you were to ask nearly any political analyst or forecaster which Democratic senators are most vulnerable in 2018, Heidi Heitkamp would almost certainly be on their lists. The North Dakota lawmaker, elected by a narrow margin in 2012, has been performing a delicate balancing act: trying to work well with her co-partisans while keeping the electorate of her heavily Republican home state happy. So it’s worth asking -- when we talk about vulnerable Senate incumbents, why does Heitkamp’s name keep coming up?


There’s a simple way and a complex way to think about this -- both of which illuminate exactly how our elections work.


The Simple Explanation -- She’s From an Extremely Republican State


Donald Trump won North Dakota by about 36 percentage points, and presidential-level partisanship exercises a great deal of influence in senatorial elections.


Here at RCP we’ve developed a model that predicts the results of Senate elections based on the president’s approval rating on Election Day; the state’s partisanship; incumbency; and whether a problematic candidate is in the race. You can play with the model here (please read the caveats first), but the results are straightforward. Incumbency helps Heitkamp, but the partisanship of her state harms her.


In order to win, she would either have to benefit from very favorable circumstances (e.g. a low Trump approval rating), successfully run away from the national Democratic brand or draw a weak Republican challenger. While any of those circumstances (or some combination of them) are possible, all the Republican candidate needs to do to stand a good chance of winning is make this race a generic Republican vs. Democrat contest.  


The More Complicated Explanation -- North Dakota Is a Natural One-Party GOP State


The 2016 election put the political battle lines in America on clear display. Age, race, urbanization, education and religion were all strong predictors of the vote at the top of the ticket. Older, white, rural and evangelical voters were more likely to vote for Trump than younger, nonwhite or urban voters. Among whites, more educated voters pulled to the left and non-college-educated white voters moved right.


In some swing states, these warring groups provide each party with a base. But most of North Dakota falls on the Republican side of these cultural and demographic divides.


North Dakota is the seventh whitest state, with only Montana, Iowa, New Hampshire, West Virginia, Vermont and Maine having a higher non-Hispanic white percentage of the population (data from the 2015 ACS 5-year estimates). According to our CBSA Divisions (described here), there are no cities in North Dakota -- only rural areas, small towns and large towns. And college education among whites doesn’t function in the same way that it does in other states. In many swing states, college education among whites powerfully predicted where Trump and Hillary Clinton would make gains over Mitt Romney and Barack Obama (Trump tended to make gains in areas with many non-college-educated whites and Clinton made gains in more highly educated areas). But in North Dakota, the rate of college education didn’t exert a powerful influence on changes in vote share.


In other words, this state isn’t diverse or divided in ways that would make it naturally competitive given the current political battle lines. The population is relatively uniform, making it a natural one-party state. And since the era of farm progressives and legendary Democratic/Nonpartisan League politicians has faded, the Republicans have been that party.


This shows up in the election maps. Heitkamp’s win can in some ways be seen as a souped up version of Obama’s 2008 and 2012 performances in the state.

The similarity between the last two maps -- the partisan lean of each county in 2012 relative to the statewide vote and the countywide results in Heitkamp’s 2012 win -- is telling. Heitkamp didn’t stake a claim to a different region than Obama did. She overperformed him by similar amounts in rural areas, small towns and large towns. The lack of exit polling makes it difficult to say whether Heitkamp has built a demographic base distinct from other Democrats. But these maps suggest that she doesn’t have the reliable, relatively high floor that a generic Democrat would have in a state like North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania or Nevada, where warring, similarly sized demographic and cultural groups give both parties a strong base.


Instead, Heitkamp has to fight to persuade voters who, in a contest between a national Republican and a national Democrat, would vote overwhelmingly for the former.


This Doesn’t Mean She’ll Lose -- But It Explains Why She’s In Danger


None of this guarantees that Heitkamp will be a single-term senator. In fact, she won in 2012 in part by localizing the race, running a strong campaign, focusing on issues like farming and energy and taking some conservative stances. She supported the Keystone XL Pipeline and put real distance between herself and the national Democratic Party. In 2012, Bill Clinton campaigned for her, noting that she had “sued me and beat me and won” as the state’s attorney general. This combination helped her outperform Obama by double digits and barely win her seat.


But there’s no guarantee that she’ll win again. She could draw a stronger opponent this cycle who more effectively nationalizes the race. Or her opponent could run a better ground game than Rick Berg, the 2012 Republican candidate (something that matters in a small state, where residents know each other and expect to know their representatives). And the broader, national political conditions could deteriorate for Democrats, further slanting the playing field against Heitkamp.  

In other words, it’s still way too early to say definitively what her chances are. But the specific dynamics at work within the Peace Garden State explain why many are bearish on her prospects.

David Byler is an elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davidbylerRCP.

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