Elections

North Dakota Is the Senate Swing Race to Watch This Year

North Dakota Senate candidate Kevin Cramer (left) and incumbent Heidi Heitkamp (Dan Koeck/Reuters)
Heidi Heitkamp’s challenger is as well-known as she is.

Bismarck, N.D. — Kevin Cramer wasn’t supposed to run for the Senate. In fact, as recently as January, the Republican congressman from North Dakota had publicly announced that he was happy representing his state in the House and would not accept the GOP nod to challenge Democratic senator Heidi Heitkamp this fall.

Almost immediately after Cramer announced his decision, the president called to say he was disappointed. “I hope you don’t disappoint me again,” Cramer tells me Trump said to him at the time. “Start thinking more about your country and less about yourself.”

For Cramer, one of the very first Republican politicians to endorse Trump during his 2016 run for president, the pointed message was difficult to ignore. Then, just a week or two later, the Senate voted on the 20-week abortion ban, and Heitkamp joined nearly all of her Democratic colleagues in opposing it, despite having promised her constituents that she’d support it.

Not only that, but C-SPAN cameras caught Heitkamp high-fiving Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) on the Senate floor just after the vote. PolitiFact assessed the moment as being “more of an awkward greeting than a crude celebration,” but to many constituents, it appeared tone-deaf and even offensive.

After that vote, Cramer says, his office was inundated with calls from North Dakotans — both his political allies and his constituents — demanding that he jump in to challenge Heitkamp. Coupled with the president’s encouragement, it was enough to change his mind. On February 15, Cramer entered the race, immediately making it the most-discussed Senate contest of the midterm cycle, and rightly so.

North Dakota is one of a handful of states with a small enough population to have just one member in the House. As a result, Cramer has already represented the entire state in Congress since 2012, the year that both he and Heitkamp were first elected (she in a close contest against Republican Rick Berg). In that election, Cramer received 12,000 more votes than she did.

Unlike Heitkamp, though, Cramer has already run for reelection twice — and in his most recent contest he won by over 45 percentage points. His entry into the race has changed its entire tenor, and it’s now considered by many strategists and pundits to be the GOP’s best shot at picking up a Senate seat in November.

Cramer is well-known (and well-regarded) for his willingness to take angry or challenging questions from constituents during town halls and radio interviews. “One of the questions I get most frequently these days is, ‘Do you promise you’ll continue doing this as a senator?’” Cramer tells me in a phone interview. “And you know, near as I can tell, I’ll have twice as much time in the Senate to keep doing this!” he adds with a laugh.

***

Few people doubt that North Dakota is a solidly red state, and that it is trending redder. It hasn’t gone for a Democrat in a presidential election since 1964, and Donald Trump won it in 2016 by more than 35 points. The closest presidential contest since the turn of the century was in 2008, when Obama managed to snag close to 45 percent of the vote.

Even more interesting is that the Democratic party in the state leans very far to the left, owing to the state’s historical ties to the Nonpartisan League, a political organization closely associated with the Socialist Party of America. Though the NPL’s powerful influence waned over the course of the 20th century, vestigial effects linger: North Dakota remains the only state in the union with a state-owned bank and a state-owned grain elevator, for example.

Heitkamp is running in a state where President Trump has maintained fairly steady popularity, and thus where any Republican — a friend of the president’s, especially — maintains a distinct advantage.

As a result, the state’s left-leaning components do much more than lean. In 2016, socialist U.S. senator Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) won the North Dakota Democratic caucuses with nearly 65 percent of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 25.6 percent. In addition, North Dakota is home to several significant Native American reservations, whose residents make up a fair amount of the state’s Democratic population and tend not to be politically moderate.

Which is to say that Heitkamp is in a uniquely challenging position. “The needle she’s got to thread to win again is she has to keep her liberal base, which is not anywhere near large enough for her to win on, while peeling off GOP and independent voters to put her over the top,” one political source in the state tells me. Add to this that Heitkamp is running not against some little-known Republican, but against a highly popular candidate who has just as much name recognition as she does, and it’s clear that she has her work cut out for her.

***

Perhaps even more important, Heitkamp is running in a state where President Trump has maintained fairly steady popularity, and thus where any Republican — a friend of the president’s, especially — maintains a distinct advantage. Surely for that reason, Heitkamp recently released an ad highlighting that her voting record has aligned with the president’s goals more than half the time. But she’s been in the Senate since 2012, not since January 2017, and this is the first time she’s having to run on a voting record.

Though she did cross party lines to vote to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, Mike Pompeo as secretary of state, and Gina Haspel to head the CIA, Heitkamp voted against the Republican tax cuts last winter, opposed the 20-week abortion ban in January, and refused any form of compromise on health-care reform during the first summer of the Trump presidency.

After Heitkamp and Cramer emerged from the June 12 primary, Trump tweeted his congratulations to Cramer, saying of Heitkamp that she will “always vote no when we need her.” Heitkamp’s best shot at reelection will lie, then, in obscuring the parts of her record that have diverged from the president’s agenda and with which North Dakotans would undoubtedly take issue.

For Cramer, meanwhile, the biggest area of concern will be the president’s insistence on flirting with a possible trade war with China. Sources in the state suggest that the average North Dakotan trusts Trump to negotiate a new deal, with Canada especially, that will be to the advantage of farmers and natural-gas producers in the state, especially. But there’s little room for error — a permanent tariff hike that harms North Dakota businesses could be a significant blow to the Cramer campaign.

If Trump can maintain his popularity well into the fall, and the Cramer campaign can effectively needle the disparities between the president and Heitkamp, this will be the race for conservatives to watch.

The most recent poll of the race, conducted by Mason-Dixon, puts Cramer ahead of Heitkamp by four percentage points, 48 to 44 percent, with 8 percent undecided. In the western portion of the state, Cramer leads Heitkamp by nearly 20 percentage points, while in the east, Heitkamp holds a modest advantage of 3 percent. Each holds a distinct advantage in one of the state’s two biggest metropolitan areas: Bismarck/Mandan for Cramer and Fargo/Cass County for Heitkamp. In short, Cramer seems to hold a slight regional advantage, and to solidify his lead, he’ll need to focus his campaign on eastern North Dakota, where 11 percent of voters remain undecided.

The president plans to help with that. In Fargo today, Trump will hold a campaign rally for Cramer — and given that the Republican congressman likely wouldn’t be in the race if not for the president, he must be glad for the support. If Trump can maintain his popularity well into the fall, and the Cramer campaign can effectively needle the disparities between the president and Heitkamp, this will be the race for conservatives to watch.

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