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N.D. Senate Race Could Be Next National Battleground

Democratic Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp greets a supporter before a town hall meeting in Minot, N.D., on May 3.
Dale Wetzel
Democratic Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp greets a supporter before a town hall meeting in Minot, N.D., on May 3.

Republicans need a net pickup of four seats to win control of the U.S. Senate this November. One opportunity they see is in North Dakota, where longtime Democratic incumbent Kent Conrad has decided not to run for a sixth term.

Republican Rep. Rick Berg is expected to win the GOP nomination in next Tuesday's primary. If he does, he'll face Democrat Heidi Heitkamp.

It's a race where outside spending has already come into play, and where Heitkamp has already begun distinguishing her politics from those of President Obama, who lost the state by nearly 9 percentage points to Republican John McCain in 2008.

Running Blue In A Red State

Standing on the deck of her comfortable home on the bank of the Missouri River in Mandan, N.D., Heitkamp points to a massive cottonwood tree growing by the river's edge in her backyard. "It's an enormous tree and it's been there a long, long time. We always like to tell people we think Lewis and Clark stopped and maybe leaned against it to check out the river," says Heitkamp.

Heitkamp is a former state tax commissioner and attorney general. She lost a campaign for governor, but won a fight against breast cancer. Now 56, she's running for statewide office again.

This week, Heitkamp released a campaign adabout a convicted rapist she tried to keep locked up. Nowhere in the spot does Heitkamp mention her Democratic party affiliation. And she's been highly critical of President Obama, questioning his energy policy and criticizing him for opposing the Keystone XL pipeline.

Recently she raised eyebrows in Washington when she said the president has failed to unite the country. In a recent interview with NPR, Heitkamp clarified those remarks: "What I said is ... that the president was handed a test, which was uniting the country, and we're even more divided than we were, I think, in 2008. And that is a source of great concern to the American public."

Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., speaks before the state's GOP Convention in Bismarck, N.D. on March 31.
Will Kincaid / AP
Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., speaks before the state's GOP Convention in Bismarck, N.D. on March 31.

Heitkamp is distancing herself from the president, like several other Democratic candidates running in parts of the country where Obama is unpopular. It might be said that Heitkamp's views on the president have evolved.

The conservative group Crossroads GPS aired an ad in North Dakota featuring a video clip it unearthed of Heitkamp from 2008, where she says: "I think Barack Obama's going to be amazing and I think that we are on our way to a better United States." The ad then goes on to say: "Tell Heidi, Obamacare is not the way to a better United States. Support the repeal of Obamacare."

The Crossroads GPS ad is aimed at helping Berg, the Republican, a real estate developer and former state lawmaker who is completing his first term in North Dakota's only U.S. House seat.

Now, he's running for the Senate.

"You know, that's where the problem is right now," says Berg. "I mean, if we want to change America, we've got to change the Senate and we've had over 30 bipartisan bills that we've passed in the House that basically are sitting in the Senate and not being brought up, not being debated. So that has to change."

North Dakota As Model For Washington

Berg, 52, holds traditional Republican views: keep taxes low, cut spending, shrink government. Berg spoke with NPR following last week's grim jobs numbers report, which showed an uptick in the unemployment rate.

"That's exactly why I'm running for the Senate. There is so much uncertainty in our country," he says. "Business out there doesn't know what the rules are going to be, what regulations are coming out. They don't know what the taxes are going to be. If they invest in something, they don't know how they're going to be taxed as they get revenue out. In North Dakota, that doesn't happen."

Berg says he wants Washington run more like North Dakota, which has the nation's lowest unemployment rate, 3 percent. That's largely due to the oil boom in the western part of the state.

If Heitkamp has her way, the Senate race will be fought over issues like Berg's support for the House budget plan sponsored by Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, which she says would cut Medicare and something else important to North Dakota — farm subsidies.

Voters in the state are likely to be deluged with campaign ads in the coming months, says University of North Dakota political science professor Mark Jendrysik.

"I think you're going to see a lot of spending, a lot of money. I think there's going to be a veritable blizzard of advertising and I think Congressman Berg certainly has a lot of personal resources," says Jendrysik. "I think the Republicans have put a very high priority nationally on flipping this seat over. It's unclear to me if Ms. Heitkamp can raise that kind of money ... and it's unclear if the national Democrats are really going to try to invest."

The Heitkamp campaign points out that it raised slightly more money than Berg in April and May, but Berg has a large advantage in cash on hand.

Democrats have a poll showing their candidate ahead, but an independent poll released by a North Dakota media group has Berg up by 7 percentage points.

With Obama at the top of the ticket in a reliably red state, North Dakota presents Democrats with one of their toughest Senate challenges — and Republicans with one of their best hopes this fall.

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NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.

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