Six months ago, the North Dakota Senate race looked like a likely Republican victory, The state's Republican Congressman Rick Berg had a clear-cut line to victory as he pursued retiring Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad's seat, and pundits weren't paying much attention to Democratic candidate Heidi Heitkamp, the state's former attorney general. Mitt Romney was and still is polling in double digits in the state and Republican congressional candidate Kevin Cramer was another GOP shoe-in.
But the Senate race seemed to change in early June when polls began showing Heitkamp and Berg, both North Dakota natives, neck and neck.
"We took a race that no one thought was going to be competitive, and we have made it a real race," Heitkamp says. "We are continuing to do the kind of campaign we think North Dakotans expect and deserve, spending a lot of time crisscrossing every corner of the state, and it is paying off."
According to a Real Clear Politics average, Heitkamp lags just a few points behind Berg in the polls now.
A Crossroads GPS ad out Thursday in which the conservative super PAC depicts Heitkamp as a "pay-to-play" politico proves what North Dakotans have been noticing all summer long, that Heitkamp is giving Berg more of a contest than anyone could have anticipated. Pundits in the state say the race has swiftly transformed into one of the hottest Senate races in the country.
Involvement of outside groups like Crossroads reveals the outcome in North Dakota has national implications as Republicans fight to take over the Senate and Democrats battle it out to defend their narrow majority.[Mia Love Clips at Incumbent Jim Matheson's Heals in Utah Race.]
In North Dakota, where 200,000 votes is likely enough to secure a victory, strategists agree this race is going to come down to just a few ballots.
Heitkamp's unlikely rise seems to spring from what University of North Dakota political science professor Mark Jendrysik described as Berg's likability gap.
"Certainly, talking to Republicans around here, there is some concern. Mr. Berg is not as likable as people once thought," Jendrysik says.
But Berg, who was elected to Congress as part of the 2010 Republican wave, argues he hasn't lost touch with North Dakota or its voters. He says he wants to bring North Dakota values to Washington, not the reverse. [See How a Do-Nothing Congress is Stalling the Economy.]
And Washington could use a bit of North Dakota success. The state has a balanced budget, an unemployment rate of less than 3 percent, and currently has 26,000 job openings.
"People I talk with on the campaign trail cannot figure out why the rest of the country can't get it right," Berg says.
Berg, who voted for Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan's budget in Congress, is confident Mitt Romney's veep choice will give him an edge in the state as fiscal accountability and budget balancing take center stage in the presidential election.
"There is a stark philosophical tug of war," Berg says. "And getting our national economy in order is important to North Dakotans." [See Why North Dakota is One of the Best Places to Live.]
While Heitkamp and Berg view the economy from their respective Democratic and Republican lenses, on policy, they see eye to eye on a few key issues that matter to constituents in their state.
The state's thriving economy is thanks in major part to North Dakota's oil boom, and Heitkamp and Berg both agree the state would benefit from the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Likewise, both candidates would like to see a national energy policy and have attacked President Obama for his hostile approach toward coal.
"We need an all-the-above comprehensive energy policy to reduce our reliance on foreign oil," Berg says.
Even on hot-button issues like healthcare, the candidates have more in common than voters might expect.
Berg supports a full repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and Heitkamp, who has tried to distance herself from Obama as she's campaigned in the state, agrees the legislation has some major flaws.
"We should continue to protect people from being denied insurance on the basis of pre-existing conditions, but we can keep the good and fix the bad," she says. "I don't support any mandate, and where the Affordable Care Act falls down is, it is not enough emphasis on cost and prevention."
Data from the Center for Responsive Politics shows Berg has outraised Heitkamp nearly 2-to-1, but it's hard to say how much money is going to matter in the small state's Senate race.
Jendrysik predicts the campaign is going to be the most expensive Senate race in the state's history, but there is only so much air time to buy in the state's four major media markets.
"In North Dakota, you have to do both kinds of politics. You have to be on TV, but what really matters is going to church picnics, going to the rodeo," he says. "People expect to meet the candidates and not just on TV."
In August, Jendrysik says North Dakotans are complaining about wall-to-wall political ads, and with the Senate race heating up, he expects more and more outside ad buys. But unlike in other parts of the country where the super PAC ads have changed the outcome of elections, Jendrysik says North Dakotans don't take kindly to outsiders trying to influence them.
"North Dakotans are pretty insular," he says. "I don't think that 'cue ominous music, Darth Vader voice' really pays off with voters in North Dakota."
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