Let North Dakota’s Recount Nightmare Begin

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As I write this Heidi Heitkamp is leading by a narrow 1% margin. Remaining to be counted are just a few precincts in Grand Forks County, the Valley City area and Williams County. And, of course, whatever early and absentee votes remain to be tallied.

In North Dakota there is an automatic recount triggered if the results are within one half of one percent. The losing candidate can request a recount if it is within 2%. It’s hard to imagine that the losing candidate wouldn’t request a recount. Democrats have already made noises about what they saw as loosing voting practices in western ND. I’ve also heard that Democrat poll watchers challenged a lot of ballots tonight.

So, expect Berg vs. Heitkamp to become a part of North Dakota election law jurisprudence in the foreseeable future. Assuming, that is, the race stays close.

As you all know, since I’ve been writing about it for weeks now, I never expected this result. I said I would be surprised if Berg won by anything less than five points, so needless to say I’m shocked.

The question that has to be going through a lot of people minds is, what happened? Two things come to my election-weary mind.

First, Republicans may have overestimated the impact the oil boom would have on western voting. The oil patch counties went for Berg (except for Mountrail which was a bit of a surprise), but not in the numbers he needed.

Second, I think a lot of observers of this race (including no small number of Democrats who spoke to me privately) expected Republican momentum statewide to carry Berg. Republicans dominated every other statewide race (the next two races in terms of closeness were roughly 13 point victories for Cramer and Christmann in the House and PSC races respectively), and I think we all underestimated the willingness of a large number of North Dakota voters to let personality matter more than policy.

Heitkamp’s campaign strategy was to make people hate Rick Berg. Hate him because he is rich. Hate him because he’s a man. Hate him because he was allegedly a “slum lord.” It was one of the ugliest campaigns North Dakota has ever seen (it’s worth remembering that most of Berg’s “attacks” on Heitkamps simply pointed out her association with Barack Obama and Obamacare) and, despite how fashionable it is for citizens to gripe about negative campaigning, it appears to have worked.

Berg under-performed the other Republicans on the ballot by about a dozen or so points. That can’t be because North Dakota voters were making a decision based on policy. They voted in Cramer with a large margin, a much more outspokenly conservative candidate than Berg.

It had to of come down to personality. Which is a pretty sad commentary on the priorities of those voters. Not because they voted for Heitkamp, but because they voted on such a trivial calculation.

Regardless, we’re probably not going to know the official winner of the ND Senate race tonight. Maybe not even this week.

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com. In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters. He writes a weekly column for several North Dakota newspapers, and also serves as a policy fellow for the North Dakota Policy Council.

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