N.D. Senate Race Moves to Likely Republican With Heitkamp’s Entry

Posted November 12, 2011 at 10:03am

Senate Democrats were elated when former North Dakota Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp jumped into the state’s open Senate race earlier this week.

She is without a doubt the best Democrat in the state to challenge the likely GOP nominee, freshman Rep. Rick Berg, in the contest to succeed retiring Sen. Kent Conrad (D).

But North Dakota remains conservative territory and this won’t be an even fight for Democrats, especially in a presidential election year. What’s more, while both candidates have their faults, Heitkamp hasn’t run for office in more than a decade.

Roll Call is changing our rating of the race from Safe Republican to Likely Republican — a label we’ll re-evaluate after Heitkamp gets her campaign legs under her and begins fundraising.

Guy Cecil, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, called the race “officially a toss-up” in a memo this week. He cited internal polling showing Heitkamp with a promising 44 percent approval rating, while Berg had only a 33 percent approval rating.

While Heitkamp’s campaign is a recruiting victory for Democrats, this race has a long way to go to be certified a tossup.

Republicans quickly pointed to Heitkamp’s praise for the president as an issue that could doom her candidacy. But that’s not the biggest drawback for Heitkamp. Her larger obstacles are the national political environment and her ability to run a top-notch, modern campaign.

President Barack Obama is not expected to compete in North Dakota next year and the state’s gubernatorial race doesn’t look like it will be competitive at this point either. That means the Senate race could be the only major statewide race that Democrats are contesting.

It’s been more than a decade since Heitkamp challenged now-Sen. John Hoeven (R) for governor, her last race for political office. Her last statewide victory was in 1996, when she was re-elected as attorney general.