- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 7, 2012

FARGO, N.D. — Democrat Heidi Heitkamp averted a Republican sweep in North Dakota’s top races with a narrow defeat of Republican Rep. Rick Berg in the U.S. Senate race.

Heitkamp won the race by fewer than 3,000 votes, and Berg could have asked for a recount.

Instead, he conceded the race Wednesday with a qualifier: He was stepping aside barring any unforeseen circumstances with the state canvasing board that certifies the race results.

“But basically,” he said, pausing to regain his composure, as he spoke to a room full of supporters in Fargo, “with that acknowledgement of the circumstances, I just want to be clear I want to concede the election to Heidi Heitkamp.”

Berg said he trusted the state’s auditors, who had been standing by their vote tallies.

He had been expected to win the race, and Republicans had counted on his victory in their failed attempt to take control of the Senate.

Heitkamp pulled off a win in heavily Republican North Dakota by emphasizing her independence from her party. She has been harshly critical of the president’s energy policy, is pro-oil and supports gun rights. Despite the Democratic label, many viewed the 57-year-old former state tax commissioner and attorney general as more of an independent than a Democrat.

“I think she supports North Dakota better. She understands North Dakota and the way we live up here,” said Willy Marler, 19, of Rogers, who voted for Mitt Romney as president but Heitkamp for Senate.

It was the most expensive Senate campaign in state history, with the candidates spending more than $8 million combined. Outside groups poured in millions more for television advertising and mailings on behalf of both candidates.

Berg congratulated Heitkamp on her victory.

“Her compassion makes the country great,” he said.

Heitkamp, a 57-year-old Mandan attorney who has served as North Dakota’s attorney general and tax commissioner, is the first woman elected to represent North Dakota in either the U.S. Senate or House. Jocelyn Burdick briefly served in the Senate after her husband, Democrat Quentin Burdick, died in September 1992, but she was appointed by then-Democratic Gov. George Sinner.

Heitkamp’s victory is the capstone of a political career that began in 1984, when she began the first of six statewide campaigns with an unsuccessful run for state auditor. She served as tax commissioner and attorney general before losing a race for governor in 2000, a campaign that was shaken when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Heitkamp recovered and later led two successful ballot initiatives, one requiring greater state spending to fight tobacco use and another making it more difficult for governments to forcibly acquire property for economic development projects.

Berg was elected to the U.S. House two years ago in a wave of Republican victories. Five months later, he began campaigning for the Senate in an attempt to become the first North Dakota congressman to make the jump after just one term since Democrat Quentin Burdick in 1960. He will be replaced in the U.S. House by Republican Kevin Cramer, a public service commissioner who won in his third big for Congress.

Wetzel reported from Bismarck, N.D.

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