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.