Dem hopes in ND, Neb.

When Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) announced his retirement in January, there were many smiles on Republican faces.

After all, North Dakota is a red state. Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMcCain rips Trump for attacks on press NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Meghan McCain says her father regrets opposition to MLK Day MORE (R-Ariz.) captured North Dakota in 2008 by nearly 9 points. And President Obama has little hope of doing better there in 2012.

In the wake of Conrad’s move, political analysts said the seat was all but gone for the Democrats. Nearly a year later, many are reassessing. 

Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampPawlenty opts out of Senate run in Minnesota GOP's Cramer won't run for ND Senate seat GOP Rep. Cramer 'trending' toward ND Senate run MORE (D), a former state attorney general, entered the race earlier this month. She is expected to face Rep. Rick Berg (R-N.D.) in the general election next year.

According to a recent Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) poll, Heitkamp is leading Berg 47 percent to 42. The poll should perhaps not be taken as definitive, because it is a Democratic poll. And it should be noted that independent campaign handicappers believe Berg will win.

But it’s not the GOP shoo-in that it appeared to be earlier this year. Heitkamp is vowing to be “an independent voice” committed to fixing the “badly broken” city of Washington, D.C. In other words, don’t expect Obama to stump for Heitkamp and look for her to portray Berg as a Washington insider.

Berg is a freshman member, which is good and bad news for him. He hasn’t been in the nation’s capital for very long, but his name ID is not sky-high, either.

The Democrats’ successful attempt to recruit a viable candidate in North Dakota has ramifications in the Nebraska Senate race. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) has not said whether he is running for a third term. But that did not deter the DSCC from pouring about $800,000 into the race. Nelson has been adamant that there is no connection between the money and his looming decision, insisting he has not made up his mind yet. 

He said he would decide by the end of the year, though Democrats are clearly leaning on him to seek reelection. At this late date, there is little chance that the party could find a solid replacement in such a red state.

The fact that Conrad decided in January, and the DSCC was able to land a top-tier recruit, puts more pressure on Nelson. Should he decide not to run, he can expect Democrats to show deeper displeasure. 

The Senate map in 2012 sets up nicely for Republicans, who are defending 10 seats while Democrats defend 23. If one party sweeps North Dakota and Nebraska, it will probably control the upper chamber come January 2013.