Race Rating Change: North Dakota Moves in Dems’ Direction

(Rep. Rick Berg, who is running for Senate, endorsed Brian Kalk in the GOP primary for his seat. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(Rep. Rick Berg, who is running for Senate, endorsed Brian Kalk in the GOP primary for his seat. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted August 22, 2012 at 7:41pm

Updated 11:30 p.m. | This week proves what a difference a strong candidate can make, even in partisan states.

In the wake of the implosion of Rep. Todd Akin (Mo.), Republicans quietly bemoaned their policy of remaining neutral in Senate primaries. But in North Dakota, where Republicans had an uncompetitive primary, it’s become clear that the GOP nominee is not as strong a recruit as he initially appeared to be.

At the start of the cycle, Republicans believed this seat would be an easy pickup. But former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp (D) proved a strong candidate, and she’s run a nearly flawless campaign against the GOP nominee, Rep. Rick Berg.

Accordingly, Roll Call is belatedly changing its North Dakota race rating to Tossup. For months, we rated this race as Leans Republican, citing the GOP’s past political performance in the state. But over the summer, Democrats ran a stronger campaign here — and polling shows it’s working for Heitkamp.

To be clear, this race ratings change does not mean Democrats have a 50-50 shot of keeping the seat of retiring Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). Republicans still hold a narrow advantage.

But it does mean North Dakota belongs in the most competitive echelon of Senate races with Virginia, New Mexico and Nevada.

Repeatedly, Republicans mentioned Heitkamp’s stellar candidacy as the reason for this shift — although none interviewed would go on record with that description.

“She’s a much better candidate than anyone anticipated,” allowed one top Republican operative based in Washington, D.C.

“I feel good about the race, but the Democrats have a strong candidate,”  another national Republican operative said.

Last November, Heitkamp entered the race as a Democrat who last sought office more than a decade ago. Skepticism followed: Her voice of support for the 2010 health care law did not poll well in a state that gives the president a 37 percent approval rating.

To reintroduce her to voters, Democrats went on the air early. It was a cheap investment — about $80,000 for a week of statewide television this spring — and it paid off.

In turn, Republicans have struggled to respond with a consistent message. For example, Crossroads GPS spent $717,000 on several ads blasting Heitkamp by focusing on her support for the health care law. They recently shifted tactics to attack her tenure as attorney general, but the spot backfired and they were forced to swap out part of the advertisement.

Berg’s own messaging has left some of his fellow Republicans scratching their heads. For example, he aired a spot touting support from Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), a strong bipartisan figure in the state, in the primary. His general election messaging has shifted from testimonials to local issues to attacking Heitkamp.

Polls have shown the race as a statistical tie for months. Although Democrats sponsored several of those surveys, Republicans have yet to respond with their own internal numbers.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Heitkamp’s campaign wouldn’t necessarily work in another state as red as North Dakota. She’s benefited from the state’s small, nontransient population. (Who wants to leave a state with a 3 percent unemployment rate?)

The universe of voters in North Dakota is so small — about 500,000 — that people really get to know their candidates. One operative coined the state the “New Hampshire of the Midwest.”

Despite all of this, Berg retains the means to put this race away. In addition to his own deep pockets, the Republican reported three times as much as Heitkamp in the bank as of the end of June.

That’s money that will go a long way — especially in North Dakota.