North Dakota race a test for Dems seeking to retain Senate

The race for retiring Sen. Kent Conrad’s (D-N.D.) seat has set up a test case for whether Democrats can count on voters splitting the ticket in states where people have soured on President Obama.

In North Dakota, Democrat Heidi Heitkamp has managed to make competitive a Senate race that many expected early on would be a slam-dunk for Republicans.

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Although Conrad, a Democrat, has held the seat for more than two decades, Democrats lost two-thirds of the congressional delegation to Republicans in 2010 — and Republicans predict the last third could go red in 2012.

A win for the GOP in North Dakota could mean the difference between a Senate controlled by Democrats in 2013 and one controlled by Republicans.

But Heitkamp has been fundraising at an aggressive pace, outdoing Rep. Rick Berg, the GOP front-runner, during the pre-primary period — although Berg has more in the bank. And although very little polling has been conducted in the race, what surveys are available suggest an increasingly tight race between Heitkamp and Berg.

A poll released Thursday by Valley News Live showed Heitkamp leading Berg 47-46 — within the survey's 4-point margin of error. Among independent voters, Heitkamp has a 15-point lead over Berg, and she bests him among female voters as well.

“In North Dakota, they vote for the person,” Heitkamp said in an interview. “When you present a good case for the future of the country, when you say, ‘Look, I’m going there to end the gridlock. I’m not part of the gridlock,’ and your opponent has been part of the gridlock, I think that makes for a competitive race.”

The mild-mannered attorney and former gubernatorial candidate spoke to The Hill during a visit to Washington for media interviews and fundraising. At her side as she enjoyed a plain English muffin was former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who retired in 2010 and was replaced by a Republican.

“People look at North Dakota through a prism that they’re accustomed to seeing in other states. North Dakota is different,” said Dorgan.

He noted that he first won a seat in Congress in 1980 — the same year Ronald Reagan won North Dakota in a landslide.

“Why is it a state that votes reliably Republican for president selects a Democratic delegation for the Senate?” Dorgan said. “Because they are unbelievably independent ticket-splitters.”

Senate Democrats are counting on voters splitting the ticket in places where Obama is unlikely to win.

Otherwise, their prospects would be almost nil in Missouri, Arizona, Montana, Indiana and Nebraska, to name a few.

Attuned to the fact that Obama, a highly unpopular figure in conservative-leaning North Dakota, will be on the ballot with her, Heitkamp has sought to make the race about local issues — and to seek distance from the national party at every opportunity.

“The Keystone pipeline — there was an opportunity for private-sector jobs that the president dropped the ball on,” Heitkamp said, hitting on an issue of key importance to the energy industry in her state.

She also was hesitant to say whether she would vote for Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) as majority leader, saying she would wait to make that decision until she was elected. She later followed up by telephone to clarify that she would indeed support Reid were he to run for that position again.

Republicans have knocked Heitkamp relentlessly over video clips from 2010 wherein she passionately makes the case for what Obama set out to do with healthcare reform, and have accused her of changing her tune once she launched a bid for federal office.

Heitkamp, to varying success, has attempted to walk a fine line, embracing the popular aspects of healthcare reform without giving her blessing to the individual mandate.

“What I said on healthcare is, 25-year-olds and under? Good thing. Closing the doughnut hole? Good thing. Thank you to the people who voted for it,” she said.

Aspects of the Affordable Care Act dealing with pre-existing conditions and tax breaks for small businesses are also on her list of good things. But voters should judge her on her own merits and not those of either party, she and her allies have maintained.

So Heitkamp, like Obama, is working to focus voters’ attention on Republican obstructionism in Congress and the common-sense goals Democrats argue could be accomplished were there less posturing and more cooperation.

"Because of gridlock — and Congressman Berg is part of that — we haven't solved the student loan interest problem,” she said. “Look at the whole range of things and at the end of the day, it seems to me that the congressman is 'What's in it for me?’ ”

Berg spokesman Chris Van Guilder said Heitkamp was continuing a recurring theme of using false, negative attacks to distract from her support for Obama and healthcare reform.

“In fact, just this week Rick had his second bipartisan bill pass the House, and that doesn’t even take into account the dozens of bipartisan bills that continue to stack up in the Democrat-controlled Senate, where Heitkamp donor and ally Harry Reid refuses to act on them,” said Van Guilder.

Heitkamp has also worked to shine as much attention as possible on her accomplishments as attorney general, including a major tobacco settlement and a law to allow the state to lock up sexual predators even if they’ve never been convicted.

When state lawmakers in North Dakota rejected that bill in 1995, Heitkamp knew it was only a matter of time.

Less than a year later, a developmentally disabled man who had admitted to raping up to 10 victims finished his prison term for an auto-theft charge and was released, then arrested on charges of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl.

More than 15 years later, Heitkamp is using the incident — and her successful push the next year for a law letting North Dakota indefinitely detain sex offenders — in a television ad for her Senate campaign.

Although some civil liberties advocates balked, Heitkamp said the criminal justice system had failed and forced the state to move heaven and earth to protect children.

“I make no apologies to anyone who wants to wave the Constitution at me,” she said.

- This post was updated at 6:26 p.m.