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.
“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.
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.
Some experts also say North Dakotans may have reservations about his decision to run for higher office so soon after arriving in Washington.
“There is a strong egalitarian kind of fairness streak here that people should wait their turn and that everybody should look out for each other and people should not try to get too big for their britches,” Mr. Wood said.
Mr. Berg said his decision to run for Senate was based on the need for his party to take control of the Senate, which since last year repeatedly has blocked measures passed in the Republican-led House.
“In order to change Washington we need to change the Senate,” Mr. Berg told The Washington Times. “We changed the conversation in the U.S. House … and by changing the U.S. Senate we can turn that conversation into action.”
The Berg campaign and its allies have portrayed Ms. Heitkamp as a liberal “Obama Democrat” who has supported the president’s health care law.
But the Democrat has shied away from any full-throated endorsements of the president. She has said that while she is opposed to repealing his controversial health care reforms, “there are some serious problems with the law” that need fixing.
Ms. Heitkamp also favors the Keystone XL oil pipeline, a proposed project that would bring oil to the U.S. from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, the administration has shunned.
“She has been successful so far in defining herself and not letting Republicans saddle her with the Obama label,” Mr. Gonzales said.
The oil boom impact
Western North Dakota’s oil fields loom as an X factor in the race. With both candidates holding similar views on oil, coal and energy, it’s difficult to predict how oil industry workers will vote. And because many workers hail from other states, it’s uncertain if they even would vote in the state.
Further complicating the issue is North Dakota’s easy voter requirements, which say residents only have to live in the state 30 days prior to an election to cast a ballot.
“It’s not your normal stereotypical Democrat vs. Republican (race) where the fossil fuel industry wouldn’t like the Democrat,” said Chad Oban, a North Dakota Democratic strategist who isn’t working on the Heitkamp campaign. Ms. Heitkamp “has as great relationship with those folks out west who work in both the coal and oil fields.”
The surprisingly close race has forced Mr. Berg, the GOP and its allies to spend more time and money on the race than expected. Outside groups, including super PACs, have poured more than $8.6 million into the contest — an unusually high amount for a small population state like North Dakota that hasn’t had a competitive Senate race since the 1980s.
Experts say that despite Mrs. Heitkamp’s strengths and the challenges facing Mr. Berg, the conservative political climate of North Dakota — and Mr. Romney’s popularity there — likely will push Mr. Berg to victory.
“I would be surprised if Heitkamp were to win,” Mr. Bauroth said. “I’d expect there will be more Republicans to come home to Berg than stick with Heitkamp at this point.
“That being said, she has done as well as the Democrats could ever have expected in this state.”