- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 23, 2012

MINOT, N.D. — North Dakota’s prosperity from an energy boom as the rest of the country slowly crawls out from under a collapsed economy is making a contest of a Senate race that Democrats had all but conceded.

Heidi Heitkamp, a former state attorney general with ties to the energy industry and a one-time candidate for governor, is perhaps the state’s only Democrat who can prevent the seat being vacated by Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad from flipping to the GOP in November.

Ms. Heitkamp, 56, touts her success as attorney general in fighting new regulations on coal and her work for a natural-gas and coal production company since leaving office. She keeps a healthy distance from her party’s standard-bearer, criticizing President Obama over the Keystone XL oil pipeline and complaining that he “hasn’t done enough” to support the energy industry.

Republicans maintain that Ms. Heitkamp will still prove too liberal a candidate to keep Mr. Conrad’s seat for Democrats. But they acknowledge it’s a tighter race than they expected.

The GOP’s candidate is Rep. Rick Berg, a successful real estate developer and longtime state legislator elected to the House just two years ago with strong tea party support.

North Dakota is an improbable battleground as both parties vie for control of the Senate. Republicans need to net four seats to take control, but strategists in both parties see few paths to a GOP majority that don’t include North Dakota. Of the 33 seats up this year, 23 are held by Democrats and just 10 by Republicans.

In a sign of the race’s competitiveness, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee recently began running ads in the state, as did Crossroads GPS, a policy and advocacy group led by Republican operative Karl Rove.

North Dakota is the election’s atypical battleground in a sputtering economy.

The state is in the midst of an oil boom. Production has increased fivefold over the past five years, and North Dakota now accounts for 9.1 percent of the nation’s oil production, up from 2.3 percent just five years ago. Its natural gas and coal industries enjoy similar growth.

As a result, the state’s per-capita income is soaring, up 78 percent since 2000, when the average North Dakotan took in $25,592. Today, the average is more than $45,000.

Both Senate candidates say they will work to continue the prosperity.

Republicans say Ms. Heitkamp’s tough talk on Mr. Obama is an election-year conversion and predict her past support for his health care overhaul and candidacy in 2008 will be her undoing. The latest Crossroads ad, for instance, targets her support of Mr. Obama’s health care plan.

Voters, however, say they’re most concerned with maintaining North Dakota’s economic success.

Jay Elkin, who farms near Taylor in Stark County in southwestern North Dakota, said he’s likely to vote for Mr. Berg because he “understands business, he’s a successful businessman and he’s been involved in government and knows his way around.”

Scott Shivley, who ranches near Velva, in north-central North Dakota, came to a Heitkamp campaign event in Minot to hear more about her energy ideas. He hasn’t decided whom he will support, but said balancing energy development with other needs is critical.

“The energy development is toughest on people who are on fixed wages, living in towns like Minot and Williston,” he said.

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