- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 14, 2012

When longtime Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad announced last year he wouldn’t seek re-election in 2012 as North Dakota’s senior senator, Republicans smelled blood. With the socially conservative state increasingly trending toward the GOP in recent elections, the party considered the seat an easy pickup that would be key to its push to overtake the Democrats’ slim control of the Senate.

Besides, Republicans had a proven winner in first-term Rep. Rick Berg, who was an early favorite over Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, a former state attorney general who had been out of organized politics since losing the gubernatorial race 12 years ago. And with GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney all but assured to win big over President Obama in North Dakota, a Republican wave was expected in the state Nov. 6.

But like a long prairie winter, Ms. Heitkamp isn’t going away quietly, as the Democrat surprisingly has pushed Mr. Berg into one of the most tightly contested Senate races in the country.

“If you had to guess you’d say that Romney will win North Dakota enough to pull Berg in, but for whatever combination of reasons [Mr. Berg] hasn’t sold and Heidi Heitkamp has,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

North Dakota’s 3 percent unemployment rate in August — the lowest in the nation — and a thriving oil industry has meant the twin topics of jobs and the economy haven’t been the epicenter of the race as elsewhere. So voters’ personal feelings toward the candidates are playing big in the race. And it’s this factor, experts say, that has handed Ms. Heitkamp a clear edge.

Heitkamp connects

“People like her, that’s just what it is,” said Robert Wood, a University of North Dakota political science professor. “People like her as an individual.”

A Mason-Dixon poll released Oct. 8 pegged the race a dead heat, with 6 percent undecided. But it also showed that Ms. Heitkamp was “recognized favorably” by 46 percent of the survey’s respondents — 4 points higher than Mr. Berg. And her “unfavorable” rating of 35 percent was 2 points lower.

While most experts say Mr. Berg has run a solid campaign, “for some reason he just hasn’t come across as likable,” said Nick Bauroth, a political science professor at North Dakota State University.

“It’s more sort of classic one-on-one politics where [Mrs. Heitkamp] seems to be succeeding,” he said “She’s been going with that instead of an ‘angry’ campaign.”

While Ms. Heitkamp hasn’t held public office since 2000, she was considered the highest profile Democrat available. Though she lost her 2000 gubernatorial bid, voters admired her resolve, campaigning despite a breast cancer diagnosis.

“People talk about political courage and all those things, but to have your hair failing out on Election Day, that’s another level of resilience,” said Nathan L. Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

Berg’s baggage

Mr. Berg, meanwhile, was a longtime member of the North Dakota House — including a several-year stint as majority leader — before he moved on to Washington by knocking off then-Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy in 2010, a wave election year for Republicans.

Mr. Berg has had to deal with voters upset over Congress’ failure this year to pass a long-term farm bill — an agricultural subsidy measure massively popular in farm states like North Dakota.

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