Was Heidi Heitkamp The Best Candidate Of 2012, Or Was Rick Berg One Of The Worst?


The Washington Post has named Senator-elect Heidi Heitkamp the “Best Candidate of 2012.”

“There were a lot of choices for best candidate, but one stood above all the rest,” reads the article. “We are giving The Fixy for best candidate of 2012 to North Dakota Sen.-elect Heidi Heitkamp (D) for an unlikely win that defied the Republican tilt of her state.”

Berg was certainly the favorite in the race, and Heitkamp was the underdog, though mitigating that perception is the fact that this was a competition of a seat Democrats already held since Quentin Burdick was first elected to it in 1960.

Heitkamp got a lot of mileage out of casting herself as the spunky underdog, and Berg suffered from people buying into that perception.

But setting all of that aside, was Heitkamp a great candidate or was Berg an underwhelming one?

Berg gets a lot of credit for taking the state’s lone House seat away from nine-term incumbent Earl Pomeroy in 2010, but that may have had less to do with Berg’s campaign than Pomeroy’s vote for Obamacare. Berg in 2010, like Berg in 2012, wasn’t that strong a campaigner. In fact, when put in front of an audience to answer questions, Berg often came off as flustered and out of sorts. There’s no doubt that this veteran of the state legislature knows the subject matter, but for whatever reason he’s always had difficulty with conveying his thoughts in a public setting and connecting with voters.

That made him come off as evasive. I wrote about that during the campaign, noting that at times it almost seems as though Berg was trying to make people not like him. “Berg comes off as plastic and calculating,” I wrote back in July. “I mean this as no personal insult to Berg, who I’ve always found to be pleasant in person, but it’s an observation I’ve heard dozens of Republicans in the state make. It’s not an opinion I’m alone in.”

Heitkamp, to her credit, exploited that weakness relentlessly. The best example was her attacks on Berg for his involvement with an earlier iteration of Goldmark Property Management. Heitkamp’s double-barreled attack on a private business in pursuit of her political goals was chilling, and her attribution of decisions that company made years after Berg had any official relationship to it were absurd, but in defending himself on the matter Berg allowed himself to be pulled down in the weeds.

There’s an old political maxim which holds that “if you’re explaining you’re losing.” Berg spent far too much time explaining on Goldmark.

Heitkamp and her campaign deserve credit for competently exploiting Berg’s weaknesses, while deftly shoring up their own, but let’s be clear that it was Berg’s chronic inability to articulate a compelling and consistent message that did him in.

Put another way, Berg was a bad candidate. Heitkamp was merely competent.

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.

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  • Rick Olson

    I think you hit the nail on every point, Rob. The problem with Rick Berg (although I consider him to be a friend and I voted for him) is exactly what you said. He does have a great bit of difficulty with connecting with people. The ads that kept harping about “Berg…he”s gone Washington,” I’m afraid wound up being right on target. Instead of sidestepping and trying to deflect criticism over his former association with Goldmark, he should have answered those questions directly. People know when they aren’t being told the entire truth. I’m not saying Rick was lying, but he was certainly stretching the truth…thus the Gone Washington tag. Heidi and her handlers managed to find some holes in Berg’s armor, big enough to drive a Mack truck through; and they did just that. Masterfully so, I might add. Do you think her brother Joel Heitkamp would leave his statewide radio gig to accept a position on Heidi’s senate staff? I could picture Joel becoming a big wheel on her staff…he’s got the political moxie where he could do a respectable job. Question is if he and Sue want to leave Hankinson for Our Nation’s Capital?

    • kevindf

      They are in for a rude surprise, if they do.

  • Dakotacyr

    You refuse to allow that the people of ND knew Heidi, it’s not like she was an unknown. She was a popular elected official when she was tax commissioner and attorney general.

    Aren’t you tired of the sour grapes postings. It’s really getting old and no one is buying it. She was well known, ran a great campaign and won.

    • Rick Olson

      I’m one of the first to acknowledge that Heidi ran a great campaign. It turned out that she still had a lot of name recognition and political capital in this state, dating back to her loss to John Hoeven in the 2000 governor’s race. She came across as the good neighbor from down the street…something that resonates extremely well with the public.

      Although I didn’t support her candidacy for the U.S. Senate, I also willingly acknowledge that I think she will do a very respectable job in representing North Dakota in the U.S. Senate. I think she will be able to work very well with North Dakota’s soon-to-be Senior U.S. Senator, John Hoeven.

      Oh, a bit of a history lesson. The two senators from each state are either referred to as the “junior senator” or the “senior senator.” Where that comes from is the label is applied, dependent upon how longer the one senator has served in the Senate as opposed to his or her colleague who hasn’t served in the chamber as long.

      Since Hoeven will have served for two years in the U.S. Senate when Senator-elect Heidi Heitkamp is sworn into the Senate in January, that makes Hoeven the “Senior Senator” from North Dakota, and it makes Heidi the “Junior Senator” from North Dakota.

      Byron Dorgan was the junior senator from North Dakota, because he hadn’t been in the Senate as long as the soon retiring Kent Conrad had been in the Senate…thus Conrad was considered the Senior Senator from North Dakota. Conrad earned the “senior senator” tag once Senator Quentin Burdick died. Conrad won the special election to serve for the rest of Burdick’s term in the Senate and then Byron Dorgan moved over from the House and was elected to Conrad’s Senate seat. Thus, Conrad was the senior senator and Dorgan was the junior senator.

      • Guest

        Better not tell Rob you think she’ll do a respectable job or he’ll blast you as being a toady, like he did for the Forum and Bismark Tribune.

        • Rick Olson

          How do we know that she’ll stink once she gets into the job? The proof’s gonna be in the pudding, so to speak. Either she’ll do great and be in office for the next two decades or so, or she’ll stink up the joint when she gets there and she’ll get voted out in 2018. You can’t have it both ways.

          The people have spoken and they have chosen Heidi Heitkamp. We need to respect that outcome and wish her all the best. After all, she’s going to be close to the bottom rung of the senatorial seniority ladder among the 100 senators.

          It is a common saying that freshman senators are seen, but not heard. We’ll have to see just how well Heidi will be able to make her voice heard.

      • awfulorv

        Thanks for clearing up that Jr-Sr thing for us. I know I’ve lain awake many nights trying to get that, and the Am-Pm thing, right in my head…

  • borborygmi

    Bergs at fault. When I have people who are Republican who tell me they either voted for Heidi or didn’t vote for Berg because they didn’t like Berg (apparently he has stepped on a few toes) you have to put it on Berg and personality.

    • Rick Olson

      Berg torqued off a lot of people because he was seen as being an opportunist. He had just been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010 and just a year into his term, he announces his bid for the U.S. Senate. That didn’t sit well with a lot of folks back here in North Dakota. Mind you, there is nothing wrong with a Congressman one day running for the Senate. However, I can understand how some people were upset with Berg, because it was more or less expected that Berg serve in the House for a number of terms before thinking about running for higher office. Then on the issues, again, I would say Berg’s fall from grace centered on his former involvement with Goldmark. Instead of sidestepping things, he needed to address those questions head on, which he did not do. It wound up costing him the election.

      • Guest

        I can’t fault Berg for throwing in his hat for the Senate. There weren’t many Republicans who could argue they were more qualified for the Senate. He had Congressional experience, Dalrymple hadn’t been governor long, Schaefer’s probably retired, although Stenehjem might’ve been an interesting choice. Can’t think of many other ND Republicans that had name recognition matching Heitkamp’s with Cramer going for the House seat.

        • Rick Olson

          I agree that for this cycle, Berg really was the only realistic choice for the GOP to run for the Senate seat which Kent Conrad will vacate at the end of the current session of Congress.

          Perennial candidate Duane Sand tried and failed to beat Berg in the primary. That made a lot of the GOP faithful mad as well. All that energy expended at the primary should have been stored up and used where it would have counted most. For the general election.

        • awfulorv

          Well hells bells…it seems that if I had changed my name to John Dillinger, Jesse James, even Ted Bundy, kept my car out of ditches near Grassy Butt, and ran for most any seat, I might have won in a landslide? Is name recognition, and a flannel jacket, all it takes anymore?

  • Game

    Many of the the things you state about Berg are also true about Romney. Romney did great in ND, but I don’t think many thought he was that appealing of a candidate. Berg ’10 and Romney in ’12 are clear anti-Obama votes. However, in a race in which Berg failed to fully nationalize the race, he was exposed more.

  • borborygmi

    The bs ads trying to scare people because Heidi was going to shut down fracking and close air bases turned a lot of people off imo. THose trumped Heidis ad’s portraying Berg as little better then Snidely WHiplash (Dudley Do-RIght, Rocky and Bullwinkle Show for the under 40 crowd)

  • Guest

    Even a bad Republican candidate will normally win over a competent Democrat in North Dakota; I think you underestimate Heidi’s campaign as merely competent.

  • Rick Olson

    Well, there is always a silver lining to every dark cloud. Heidi Heitkamp’s already been offered a seat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Heidi has accepted. Having representation on the ag committee should bode well for North Dakota. It’ll be interesting to see what committees Kevin Cramer is offered over in the House. Usually, freshman representatives don’t get seats on the big committees right away. Berg broke that when he got a seat on the House Appropriations Committee right away. That was practically unheard of in and of itself, but it happened.

  • Camburn

    Rep Berg lost support because of lack of performance. He did not vote for the Republican Study Group budget, which would have solved our deficit/debt issue. He also voted for extending the Patriot Act, and voted for the NDAA bill which included sections 1021 and 1022. There were amendments on the floor to strip these out, but he voted against that amendment.
    Basically, lack of performance.

  • Clint F

    I’m a fan of Rick Berg’s but I was left shaking my head at his campaign all the way through. The fact that Heidi Heitkamp was even competitive against him shows how weak a campaign he ran.

  • NDSuperman

    I, for one, was very annoyed with Berg’s campaign nearly from start to finish. Little kid pouring water in a purse, Berg’s mom, and my least favorite a couple senior ladies telling each other about “That’s not the North Dakota way.” North Dakota is land with boarders. It can not have thoughts or values. The people of North Dakota can…and they vary greatly from person to person. In my opinion, the NDGOP ought to make it a point to espouse the value of the individual, and any ideas about grouping people together, or generalizing about monolithic thoughts should be thrown out the window.

    I had the chance to talk with Berg roughly a year ago (I remember at that time Rick Perry was the hot candidate in the primary and we talked about it). He was talking about how he thought people wanted to be treated and spoken to. I don’t know how much of his ear I had, but I told him that I thought that tailoring his message to certain groups was a bad move and made him look phony. A leader, however, has confidence in the superior nature of his/her beliefs, and makes it a goal to articulate this message as well as possible …the reasonable person will listen and follow it. Stop trying to win every vote. Some people will never be swayed, no matter how strong the argument.

  • DelawareBeachHouse

    I didn’t follow the Montana Senate race very closely, but why did Rehberg lose to Tester? It wasn’t likability or passivity, was it? Something else was up in both cases, I think, like stronger support for Obama than we might have imagined, helping out the Dem Senate candidates.

    Don’t really know.

  • VocalYokel

    “…and Berg suffered from people buying into that perception.”

    Berg suffered from self-inflicted wounds including being a communicator of underwhelming capability, the idea that this race was a ‘gimme’, and a distinct lack of cajones.

  • Dallas

    eHH was a known with great positives. Berg was a guy who not many people know and began the race with a 56% negative rating. Then he let Riove and company run a terrible campaign. He deserved to lose.

    Kevin Cramer is also a potential loser in two years. Kevin, who also has increibly high negatives, was going to bring people together. What he’s going to do is vote the GOP line, not compromise and let the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Dallas

  • Mel

    I suppose you can say Heidi was competent – If being competent is the same thing as being underhanded and deceitful these days. Reading her flyers, you would have sworn she wasa Tea Party candidate. I’ll bet she doesn’t vote like one.
    Unfortunately, Rick’s campaign was lackluster at best.

  • Lynn Bergman

    Spot on analysis! To reinforce… I’ll bet a heck of a lot of Cass County voters remembered their vote years ago to deny a sales tax increase for “economic development” that failed 2:1. When one acts selfishly, to pad the pockets of one’s friends in business… it comes back to haunt. Other politicians in ND should pay attention…