Down to the wire in North Dakota: Heitkamp most vulnerable senator

  • North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp is widely considered the most vulnerable incumbent in 2018
  • Heitkamp’s challenger, GOP Rep. Kevin Cramer, enjoys statewide popularity and double-digit leads in polls
  • President Trump’s 52 percent approval rating in North Dakota is expected to be a net positive for Cramer

Republican’s narrow 51-seat majority in the U.S. Senate has looked dicey at times during President Donald J. Trump’s first two years in office, but recent events and a favorable electoral map are making it increasingly likely that the GOP’s majority will hold, if not increase, in the 2018 midterms.

One of the strongest indicators of this is the contest for U.S. Senate in North Dakota, where Democratic incumbent Heidi Heitkamp is facing Republican Congressman Kevin Cramer. Senate Democrats are defending 10 seats in states Trump won in 2016 (many by large margins), and as Election Day nears, their hold in North Dakota is looking exceptionally vulnerable.

Analysts and news outlets consistently rank Heitkamp’s senate seat as among the most likely to flip parties. This is largely due to the fact that Cramer, as the state’s lone representative in the U.S. House since 2012, already has an established statewide presence. It’s also significant that Trump won North Dakota with a decisive 63 percent of the vote in 2016 compared to only 27 percent for Hillary Clinton.

Further complicating matters for Heitkamp’s reelection bid is that she voted against Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. She released a video in which she personally explained her vote and why she believed Kavanaugh was unfit for office, but it is unlikely to sit well with many of her conservative-leaning constituents in the state and may inspire them to support a candidate more aligned with the president who will not exhibit as many of Heitkamp’s self-described “independent” characteristics.

Further complicating the subject, Heitkamp made a major blunder when she released a campaign ad misidentifying victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, and rape. She quickly apologized, but the damage had been done, and several women listed in ad criticized her, as well as Cramer.

“I don’t think there’s any question that Sen. Heitkamp and I both care deeply about people who have been assaulted,” Cramer told local news station KVRR last week, “but when it becomes a weapon in a political campaign, it does tend to diminish I think the real pain and we need to be very careful how we deal with it. We’re all going to make mistakes. She made a really big one.”

In spite of this, there appears to be a consensus that both Heitkamp and Cramer are strong candidates. Cramer even admitted Heitkamp’s likability in one of his campaign ads and has said that voters would probably like to vote for both of them if they could. Heitkamp enjoys a solid approval rating in the state, 47 to 43 percent, and may have an edge on a few specific issues such as health care, where her support for protection of preexisting conditions stands in contrast to Cramer’s past votes.

“I didn’t go to the Senate to take ‘symbolic votes’ – especially not on an issue as important as health care,” Heitkamp wrote in a recent op-ed in the Bismarck Tribune. “North Dakotans elected me to find solutions. . . If you’re concerned about health care and looking for a leader who’ll work across the aisle to protect families and bring costs down, I’m humbly asking for your vote on Nov. 6.”

As the race nears the finish line, Heitkamp’s campaign is doubling down on her record of working across the aisle while not being beholden to president Trump’s agenda.

“He is all in on the president,” Heitkamp said of Cramer in their final debate, “and I’m all in on North Dakota.”

North Dakota’s demographics, however, are looking increasingly difficult for Heitkamp to overcome. Cramer’s enthusiastic support for the president appears that it will be a net positive for his campaign given Trump’s 52 to 44 percent approval rating in North Dakota. His campaign has sought to capitalize on this, releasing an ad showing Trump criticizing Heitkamp’s support for sanctuary cities and opposition to tax cuts.

“(Cramer’s) trying to argue that it’s a Republican state, and because they have both served in Congress for six years, voters have two records to compare,” said Simone Pathé, senior political reporter at Roll Call. “He’s argued that the state went for Trump, and that the state’s other senator, John Hoven, is a Republican, therefore voters are clearly seeking Republican representation.”

This simple calculus appears to be paying off, as RealClearPolitics’ average of recent polls show Cramer with a lead of more than 12 percent.

Image Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture/Public domain

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