If the theme of this cycle’s Senate races proves to be that geography is destiny then there will be no better example than the contest in North Dakota between Democratic U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and GOP U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer. It has become apparent that what matters most in this contest is party affiliation. While Heitkamp has done everything within her power to win a second term, and Cramer seems at odds with voters on some issues, he has been sitting on a lead ranging from the high single digits to the low teens. And despite Heitkamp’s best efforts, it doesn’t appear that she can turn this around in the next 19 days. As such, the race moves to the Lean Republican column, and this rating change has implications for Democrats’ efforts to win the majority.
There is an assumption this race turned on Heitkamp’s decision to vote against the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. In reality, it may have just been the final blow in a state that has moved further to the right since Heitkamp won the seat in 2012 by just 3,000 votes as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried the state with 58 percent.
Cramer hasn’t been a perfect candidate or run a flawless campaign. During the Kavanaugh hearings, he said some insensitive things about victims of sexual assault. He has been supportive of President Trump’s trade policies even though the state’s soybean farmers are bearing the brunt of the fallout. By contrast, Heitkamp has outraised Cramer three to one, and her campaign has been relentlessly on message, reminding voters of her focus on North Dakota’s needs and her moderate views. In the wake of her vote against Kavanaugh, she appeared in a television ad explaining her vote. None of it appears to matter to voters as long as Cramer has an (R) after his name.
According to the RealClearPolitics moving polling average, Cramer has an 8.7-point advantage over Heitkamp. There hadn’t been a single public poll released over the summer, but three were conducted after Kavanaugh’s first confirmation hearing in early September. A survey conducted in mid-June gave Cramer a four-point lead. He maintained that four-point advantage in a Fox News poll taken September 8-11. An NBC/Valley News poll (September 17-27 of 650 likely voters) had Cramer ahead of Heitkamp, 51 percent to 41 percent. Finally, a more recent Fox News poll (September 29-October 2 of 683 likely voters) showed a wider Cramer advantage of 12 points, 53 percent to 41 percent.
Democrats hold out some hope that Heitkamp can gain some traction and overtake Cramer, but it’s hard to see how that will happen.
Putting the race in Lean Republican has some larger implications for the Senate. With North Dakota no longer in play, Democrats’ path to the majority has gotten steeper. They now need a gain of three seats, assuming that they don’t lose any more of their own. Theoretically, Democrats would need to win three of the four Republican-held seats in the Toss Up column, but it isn’t a given that they won’t suffer another loss as Democratic-held seats in Florida, Indiana and Missouri sit on a knife’s edge.
Image: North Dakota Senate debate | Credit: Tom Stromme/The Bismarck Tribune via AP