Democrat Heidi Heitkamp lost the battle to keep her Senate seat in North Dakota the moment Kevin Cramer announced his intention to run against her. As the state’s at-large congressman, Cramer, a popular Republican, always had the advantage in the race, and it showed tonight.
When Fox News called the race, Cramer was leading Heitkamp by a 20-point margin, with 60 percent of the vote to her 40 percent, running well ahead of his healthy lead in the RealClearPolitics polling average in the contest. And it wasn’t just the Heitkamp campaign’s missteps that cost her the seat, though there were plenty of those to go around.
The dynamics of the race were set against her from the start. Both Heitkamp and Cramer were first elected to Congress in 2012. Heitkamp, a former attorney general with no legislative experience and thus no voting record, faced a weak Republican opponent and received a boost from Barack Obama at the top of the ticket, increasing Democratic turnout in a state that has been a GOP stronghold for decades. Even so, she only managed to win by one percentage point.
Cramer, meanwhile, fared better. Running to be North Dakota’s lone congressman in the House of Representatives, he beat his opponent by 14 percent and received 12,000 more votes statewide than Heitkamp did in her own race. Since then, he’s consolidated statewide support and built a reputation for being one of the most accessible representatives in Congress, hosting frequent town halls all over the state. In 2016, his most recent reelection contest, he beat his opponent by nearly 50 percent.
That same year, North Dakota fell hard for Donald Trump: The former businessman defeated Hillary Clinton by 35 points, and despite his trade war’s negative effects on North Dakota’s many soybean farmers, the president remains popular statewide. That fact alone put Heitkamp in a difficult spot for this year’s contest, as a progressive senator seeking reelection in a state enthralled with the Republican president.
Though she spent much of the campaign touting that she voted over half the time to support the Trump administration’s agenda, she’s been in the Senate for six years, including all of Obama’s second term. During her tenure, she has cast votes in support of Obamacare, the Iran deal, and Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court nomination, but against the tax reform, popular abortion restrictions, and Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination last month.
Appealing to a conservative electorate that supports the president’s agenda, then, required trying to hide much of her record, and Cramer’s effective campaign made that hard to accomplish. During the debates and in his ads, the Republican hit Heitkamp for her progressive votes and lack of responsiveness to constituents. In his rallies in the state, President Trump hit the Democrat for her big votes that contradicted the GOP agenda, thwarting Heitkamp’s efforts to cozy up to him in Washington. And the message seems to have gotten through.
As soon as Cramer changed his mind and decided in January to challenge Heitkamp, her reelection campaign became an incredibly steep battle. This summer, the Republican congressman told National Review that he reversed his initial decision and jumped in the race after President Trump called to insist that he reconsider — and after his office was inundated with calls from North Dakotans enraged over Heitkamp’s vote against the Pain-Capable Unborn-Child Protection Act.
His advantages running as an at-large congressman in a bright-red state were compounded by late mistakes from Heitkamp, such as publishing the names of sexual-assault victims in a campaign ad without their permission. The Democrat’s vote against Kavanaugh contradicted public-opinion polling showing that 60 percent of North Dakotans wanted him to be confirmed. And just last week, the North Dakota Democratic-Non-Partisan-League funded a Facebook ad telling citizens that they could risk losing their out-of-state hunting licenses if they voted in North Dakota on Election Day — an ad that Heitkamp appeared to wink at when asked about it later.
Cramer’s natural edge, Trump’s popularity, and Heitkamp’s unforced errors combined to make this a nearly un-winnable race for the Democratic incumbent. To keep her seat, Heitkamp had to convince her constituents that she spent the last six years doing close to the opposite of what she had actually been doing. This evening, North Dakota voters showed her they saw through her act.