Democrat Heidi Heitkamp puts North Dakota Senate seat in play

October 9, 2012


BISMARCK, N.D. — The surprisingly competitive Senate race here has diverged into two parallel campaigns: one for control of the upper chamber of Congress, the other for mayor of North Dakota.

Republican Rep. Rick Berg is trying to make it a referendum on Harry Reid, telling voters they may well decide whether one of the GOP’s favorite piñatas sticks around as majority leader.

Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, meanwhile, is putting the well-worn maxim that all politics is local to the ultimate test. The down-home, back-slapping former prosecutor rarely misses a chance to hold forth on parochial concerns like flood control or affordable housing and is quick to cite her early work in the state Capitol to help energy interests.

Though North Dakota has a history of electing Democrats — both its senators had “D’s” next to their names until 2010 — the race in this increasingly red state was long thought to be Berg’s to lose. But Heitkamp, proving to be perhaps the best pure Senate campaigner of this election cycle, has made it a barnburner.

A GOP loss would be a stinging embarrassment for the party — and all but dash its hopes of retaking the Senate.

Eager to make the race about anything but Heitkamp’s winning personality, Berg is trying to focus attention on bigger matters. In three campaign events and an interview, the freshman congressman and longtime state legislator hammered home what he called the dire consequences of Reid returning for another session as majority leader. And he’s inviting national GOP figures like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison to the state to vouch for him.

Berg’s argument is simple and stark: A vote for Heitkamp ensures the status quo, Democrats in power.

“The current majority leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, he said that coal is bad for us and hurts our country,” Berg told a gathering of energy leaders in Bismarck Thursday. “Now, if the Senate changes to a Republican majority, you’re going to very likely have Mitch McConnell from a coal-producing Kentucky state that’s going to be a friend of coal and encourage coal production.”

Heitkamp, on the other hand, sprinkles her pitches with references to working for flood protection in Fargo, fighting the Army Corps of Engineers on river management in Bismarck and advocating for affordable housing in Minot. During a tour of a health care clinic in Fargo on the verge of an expansion, she told the director she hopes to return for the ribbon-cutting, even if it means cramming it into her jam-packed schedule before Election Day.

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