Democrat Heidi Heitkamp is running for Senate in North Dakota. That may not sound like a big deal, but it is. Holding the seat of retiring Democrat Kent Conrad’s is crucial to maintaining or expending the current Democratic majority in the Senate, and it may even help Barack Obama win North Dakota.
Heitkamp is a very strong candidate. In 1986 the then-31 year old Heitkamp was appointed to fill out the term of ND tax commissioner Conrad, who had been elected to the Senate. (Conrad’s predecessor as tax commissioner was his eventual Senate colleague Byron Dorgan.) The tax commissioner had been elected on a non-partisan ballot, but beginning in 1988 the office was listed on the partisan ballot. Despite Dukakis’ 13 point loss in North Dakota, Heitkamp nevertheless held on to the seat. Four year later she ran for Attorney General, becoming only the second Democrat in ND history to hold that office. She was reelected in 1996.
In 2000 Heitkamp ran for Governor. In early October she was polling ahead of Republican John Hoeven when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to undergo surgery. It should be seen as an indication of her strength as a candidate that despite having to suspend campaigning due to the cancer treatments, and with Al Gore losing North Dakota by 27 points, Heitkamp only lost to Hoeven by 11 points. Whereas prior to her entry in the race the odds were probably against Democrats holding Conrad’s seat, today the race is probably no worse than a toss-up.
That the North Dakota senate race will be competitive probably helps Barack Obama. On the Southern Plains the 2008 presidential election was a bloodbath. Obama lost Oklahoma by over 30 points, and in most of the counties from Southwest Kansas through the Panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas Obama received less than 25% of the vote, and in a few he got as little as 7% of the vote. But the Northern Plains were competitive. The Obama campaign contested North Dakota and McCain still won, but the margin was under 9 points. South Dakota was a bit closer, and Obama lost Montana by only 2 points. Iowa and Minnesota were comfortable wins, and Obama even won an electoral vote in Nebraska, where his percentage of the vote was almost equal to the percentages garnered by FDR in 1940 and 1944.
At this point the presidential campaign the fundamentals do not point to Obama performing as strongly as he did in 2008. But that may change once the Republicans chose a nominee, because it’s likely the voters will conclude they don’t like him. And while North Dakota isn’t a natural bastion of Obama support, what is Obama’s biggest national obstacle to reelection–the poor economy–is in North Dakota an asset. A recently released index of state-level economic growth determined that North Dakota is the only state in the country where conditions are better today than they were in 2008.
Obama’s strength in the Northern Plains compared to recent Democratic presidential candidates should help Heitkamp hold the Senate seat for Democrats. And Heitkamp’s likely strong showing and the resources of a strong statewide campaign to do field and get out the vote activities should help Obama.