In North Dakota, many Republicans are beside themselves as to just how Heidi Heitkamp managed to beat Rick Berg in the Senate race. From a political history standpoint, the easy answer is that North Dakota has a long history splitting tickets, but that is not the whole story.
Berg ran as a “Moderate Republican” and Heitkamp ran as a “Conservative Independent-Democrat”. At the top level, clearly Heitkamp was more effective at setting her brand, but the real causes and problems are much deeper than that.
The raw data of the race explains how Heitkamp won. Whether we call them “independent voters” or “disloyal Republicans”, there was a substantial lack of coattails from the Presidential and Gubernatorial races into the Senate race.
42,011 more votes were cast for Dalrymple than Berg.
(1 in 5 Dalrymple voters did not for Berg.)
29,828 more votes were cast for Romney than Berg.
(1 in 6 Romney voters did not vote for Berg.)
Both of these figures are steep declines from the “top of the ticket”. When 15-20% of Republican and Republican-leaning voters switch sides for a race, it is obviously going to be difficult to win.
Traditionally, this would be explained away by saying that Berg ran to the right of Dalyrmple or Mitt Romney and was defeated because he was running as a hard-right conservative. This cannot be the case, Berg was neither in practice or in campaigning any more conservative than Dalrymple or Romney.
What is difficult to explain away is how Kevin Cramer managed to collect 15,147 more votes than Rick Berg. Cramer ran as the most conservative candidate on the statewide ballot in North Dakota. It is easy to explain why Cramer did not garner as many votes as Dalrymple because of how conservatively he ran. However, nobody can argue that Berg ran too far to the right because Cramer ran as far right as possible and won!
And to further emphasis this point, 10,215 votes were cast for Eric Olson (Libertarian) that most likely would have gone to Cramer had Olson not been on the ballot. Likewise, if there had been a Libertarian option the Senate race, Berg would have had even fewer votes based on how many were cast for Olson. On top of all this, nearly 5,000 fewer total votes were cast in the House race than the Senate race.
So the real question: why did Berg lose 20% of Dalrymple’s voters, 15% of Romney’s voters, and 8% of Cramer’s voters?
Here are the three major contributors, in my opinion, that led to Rick Berg losing the election for U.S. Senate:
* The National Republican Senatorial Committee hurt Berg by increasing Heitkamp’s likability with the ads declaring that “Heidi is a nice person, but…” and having actors say “I like Heidi, but…” — North Dakotans have a long history of voting for people they like but don’t agree with. (i.e. Byron Dorgan, Kent Conrad, Earl Pomeroy)
* Berg failed to articulate his beliefs beyond repealing Obamacare and stopping the EPA. In essence, he ran as a single issue candidate, and did not have a platform as a sitting congressman would be expected to have.
* Berg allowed Heitkamp to demonize his business success with Goldmark by appearing to distance himself from Goldmark, thereby reinforcing the Heitkamp demonization of Goldmark.
There are simply enough Republican-leaning voters that can be swayed to vote for a well-known and well-funded Democrat. In the big picture, this means that Republicans do not really have a strangle-hold in North Dakota – rather it means that Democrats cannot put up a fight in most instances.
It also means that Republican success in North Dakota is far more based on Democratic weakness than on Republican strength than even the most astute political observers realized.
Democrats found a way to convince voters that Heidi Heitkamp is “conservative enough.”
That alone should be a wake-up call for Republicans in this state.
Dustin Gawrylow is the Managing Director of the North Dakota Watchdog Network