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Why Isn’t North Dakota’s Senate Race a Tossup?

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The problem for Democrats in North Dakota is that Heitkamp might well be at her strongest before the North Dakota Senate race really engages, so the two early Democratic surveys may be measuring her appeal at its apex, not over the long term.

National and North Dakota Republicans have made no secret of their intention during the campaign to highlight Heitkamp’s enthusiasm for Obama in 2008 and her support for much of his agenda. If Republicans have the kind of material against Heitkamp that they say they do — and assuming that the attacks stick — her personal ratings have nowhere to go but down.

In any case, once the campaign gets under way and North Dakota voters start evaluating the Senate candidates in the context of a campaign (that is, once partisanship becomes a lens through which voters see the race), Heitkamp’s standing is likely to slip.

Democrats note that while North Dakota is often classified as a reliably Republican state, it has gone through periods of electing many Democrats statewide. That is true.

Democrat Byron Dorgan served in Congress from 1980 to 2010, Democrat Earl Pomeroy served in the U.S. House from 1992 to 2010, and retiring Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad has been in the Senate since 1986. Democrats held the state’s governorship from 1961 to the end of 1992, except for a brief four-year period during the early 1980s.

The state Senate had a Democratic majority from the late 1980s into the early 1990s and a majority in the state’s House very briefly in the early 1980s.

But recently, the North Dakota Republican Party has shown its muscle. Eleven of the 12 members of the state’s executive branch are Republicans, with the state superintendent of public instruction (a nonpartisan office on the ballot) being the only Democrat. In the state Legislature, Republicans have an almost 3-to-1 advantage in the state Senate and well over a 2-to-1 advantage in the state House.

And of course, Republicans finally won a Senate seat (when Dorgan retired) and the state’s lone U.S. House seat last cycle when Berg ousted Pomeroy.

So, given North Dakota’s current political bent and Obama’s poor job rating, and even with her initial strength in early polling, Heitkamp must still be regarded as an underdog in the Senate race.

Obviously, if it becomes clear that voters are not convinced by Republican attacks, that Berg’s own standing with voters is so damaged that they are willing to support a Democratic alternative or that Obama’s prospects improve significantly in the next year, my assessment of Heitkamp’s prospects would change.

For now, Heitkamp’s entry into the Senate contest gives Democrats reason for optimism and certainly makes this contest worth watching. But it is far from clear that she can win an open seat in 2012, especially given the parliamentary nature of our recent elections.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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