There is a lot of anxiety in North Dakota about the US Senate race between Democrat Heidi Heitkamp and Republican Rick Berg. Heikamp is the underdog, and has a lot to overcome in terms of her past support for President Obama and his unpopular policies, but she’s run a strong campaign far exceeding the expectations of most, while Berg’s campaign has seemed lethargic at time and prone to mistakes.
Then again, Heitkamp had a pretty low bar to get over to exceed expectations. In 2010 the Democrats’ Senate candidate got just over 22% of the vote. It doesn’t take much in the way of competence to look very, very good by contrast.
Still, though, perception is reality, and some in North Dakota are filling the vacuum of hard and reliable polling data in the race (the last poll was more than a month ago from Rasmussen which had Berg leading by 9 points) with fears of Heitkamp holding the state’s Senate seat for the Democrats.
But here’s an interesting question: What does the House race tell us about the Senate race?
For Republicans, there is little fear over that outcome. Kevin Cramer seems to be on cruise control, while Pam Gulleson’s campaign seems to be flailing, trying to gain traction with something. Barring some unforeseen scandal, Cramer is going to come away the victor.
How does that impact the Senate race? It’s hard to imagine voters casting their ballots overwhelmingly for Cramer, but then choosing Heitkamp in the Senate race. And that goes for the rest of the ballot as well. Governor Jack Dalrymple is expected to beat Democrat challenger Ryan Taylor by a wide margin, and there is so little worry among Republicans for the rest of the statewide races, every one of which features a Republican incumbent, that a prominent Republican elected official mentioned to me that he couldn’t even remember the names of the Democrat challengers.
Now, my friends on the left might argue that North Dakota has a long history of ballot-splitting. It wasn’t so long ago that Republican Governor John Hoeven was winning lopsided victories on the same ballot that Democrats Kent Conrad, Byron Dorgan and Earl Pomeroy were winning lopsided re-election to federal office. That’s a valid point, but remember that North Dakotans just elected Berg in 2010 while they haven’t voted for Heitkamp since the late 1990’s.
Berg benefits from the perception, if not the technical reality, of incumbency thanks to his victory in the House race last cycle. And incumbency is a potent thing in North Dakota politics.
I suspect that we’ll be getting some reliable independent polling in North Dakota’s top-of-the-ticket races soon, and that this polling will confirm that the Senate race is still Berg’s to lose. Until then, though, it wouldn’t hurt the Berg campaign to shake the lead out.