Race for the Senate 2018: Key issues in North Dakota

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) speaks with reporters ahead of the weekly policy luncheons on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 24, 2018.  REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein - RC1E5FB6CD50
Editor's note:

This post is part of the series Race for the Senate 2018.

2018 Midterm ElectionsIn 2012, Heidi Heitkamp (D) parlayed stronger-than-expected support from Cass, Grand Forks, and Rolette counties into victory statewide, winning election to the U.S. Senate by fewer than 3,000 votes. These results shocked North Dakota Republicans, who’d enjoyed polls showing their candidate up 10 percent just weeks prior. Six years later, Republicans think they have a winner in Kevin Cramer, the state’s at-large representative to the U.S. House. Cramer hopes to turn the race into a referendum on President Donald Trump, who won this state with 63 percent of the vote in 2016. Indeed, Cramer would likely cruise to victory if voters merely wished to reiterate their support for Trump. In response, Heitkamp has largely focused on state issues while emphasizing areas of agreement with the president. This strategy had some potential until the recent controversy over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh forced Heitkamp into direct opposition with President Trump.

Trade policy and North Dakotans’ livelihoods

The trade war between the United States and China has had a negative impact on North Dakotan farmers, particularly those producing soybeans. Heitkamp argues that this dispute placed an unfair burden on midwestern states like North Dakota. She contends the trade war was a bad idea and needs to be ended. Cramer urges patience, arguing that farmers will reap benefits from this conflict over the long term. Recent changes to the NAFTA agreement between Canada, Mexico, and the United States may provide some support for Cramer.

Both candidates call for further reductions in federal regulations, particularly those affecting the oil industry. Heitkamp and Cramer have also sparred over who deserves the most credit for eliminating oil-export restrictions in 2015.

The Trump factor

President Trump looms large in this election, which clearly benefits Cramer. Initially, Trump seemed a little ambivalent about Cramer. On several occasions he expressed his admiration for Heitkamp, stating that she was “a good woman” and perhaps worthy of a cabinet position. However, this relationship ended as the 2018 campaign heated up. When Trump visited Fargo in June to support Cramer he stated: “You need a senator who doesn’t just talk like they’re from North Dakota, but votes like they’re from North Dakota.” In addition, the Cramer campaign has tried to make voters associate Heitkamp with Hillary Clinton, who remains very unpopular in North Dakota.

Heitkamp was somewhat able to finesse such criticisms by emphasizing her support for the Trump agenda in Congress. However, her vote against Supreme Court nominee may have alienated Trump enthusiasts.

A well-liked incumbent vs. a brash challenger

Heitkamp’s most obvious weakness is that she is a Democrat in a Republican state. Heidi Heitkamp is a formidable campaigner. She is an excellent retail politician and has made a real connection with North Dakotan voters, particularly after her breast cancer diagnosis in 2000. Heitkamp would likely be unbeatable if she was Republican.

Cramer is seen as aggressive to the point of rudeness, prone to unfortunate outbursts, and very partisan. At one time, this image would prove costly to a candidate on Election Day. However, in this age of Trump, North Dakota voters seem less concerned by a candidate’s behavior.

Voter ID changes and the shrinking influence of Democrats

If the election is close, then the most relevant factor in this election could be the post-2012 revisions to voter identification law. In 2012, Heitkamp won Cass and Grand Forks counties with their preponderance of college students by 13,314 votes and Rolette and Eddy counties with their large Native American populations by 3,304 votes. These margins assured statewide victory. However, some Republicans claimed that the election was marred by widespread efforts to circumvent state residency requirements. To address these complaints, the state assembly revised its voter identification laws in 2013 and again in 2015. The state now requires a residential address on a driver’s license or ID card and won’t accept a post office box except with some proof of residential address. This could impact students who haven’t changed their licenses to reflect their new circumstances and Native Americans who do not have a residential address.

If Cramer wins by a substantial margin, then the most important factor would be the collapse of the North Dakota Democratic-Nonpartisan League Party. While Democrats have long been the minority party here, the party was capable of winning state-level elections for much of the 20th century. Indeed, as late as 2010, the state’s Senators and at-large representative were Democrats. With a Heitkamp loss, though, the congressional delegation would become fully Republican. Given the polarization of the electorate, this transformation could become a permanent feature of North Dakotan politics.

Finally, a discussion of North Dakota politics should always include the caveat that good polls in this state are few and far between. While post-Kavanaugh polls show Heitkamp behind Cramer, it is not clear whether her vote against the Supreme Court nominee damaged her campaign or if she was always operating from a significant deficit.