By DALE WETZEL and HENRY C. JACKSON, Associated Press
MINOT, N.D. (AP) — 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.
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 Barack Obama over the Keystone XL oil pipeline and complaining that he "hasn't done enough" to support the energy industry.
Republicans maintain that Heitkamp will still prove too liberal a candidate to keep 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.
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.
Berg, one of the more inconspicuous members of a large and outspoken GOP freshman class, starts the race as a favorite. He has outraised Heitkamp by about 2-to-1 and has nearly twice as much cash on hand as she does — $1.6 million to about $850,000.
North Dakota has a Republican governor, the GOP controls its Legislature, and in 2010 a Senate seat and a House seat, the one Berg now holds, both flipped to Republicans. The state hasn't voted for a Democratic president since Barry Goldwater was the Republican nominee in 1964.
Thus far, Berg, 52, is running on the same issues that helped him unseat longtime Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy in 2010: cutting the federal budget deficit and limiting government's power.
"We should show Washington how we do it in North Dakota," Berg said in a speech accepting his party's nomination at its state convention. "I'm running to stop the over-regulating of our economy and start growing it."
Democrats see key differences between this year and 2010. Heitkamp is the chief one.
While lagging behind Berg in raising money, she still has raised 10 times as much as the Democratic Senate candidate in 2010.
North Dakota is not a particularly expensive state in which to campaign. GOP Sen. John Hoeven raised slightly more than $3 million in his winning campaign in 2010.
Heitkamp is arguably better known than Berg. She's previously run for statewide office five times and helped lead a successful campaign to amend the North Dakota Constitution to restrict the ability of local governments to take private property for economic development projects.