The U.S. Senate race in North Dakota is shaping up to be a particularly competitive contest, one rooted in both the traditional politics of the state, as well as in the broader issues and concerns of the moment. In this most red of red states (Donald Trump won North Dakota by 36 points in 2016), Democrat Heidi Heitkamp is defending her seat against U.S. Representative Kevin Cramer, a popular and experienced Republican challenger. Though long viewed to be a toss-up, the latest polls have given Cramer a slight edge in the contest, which highlights Senator Heitkamp’s dilemma: How does a first-term Democratic incumbent prevail in a state that historically leans Republican, and which seems to embrace the current Republican President’s politics?
One traditional answer for candidates like Heitkamp is to double down on the advantages of incumbency. In this regard, her approach has been no different than that of other candidates who closely follow the incumbent’s playbook. She has sought to align her Senate votes with the interests of her constituents, and has gone out of her way to emphasize local issues. For instance, Heitkamp is one of three Democratic senators (the other two were also elected in red states) who supported Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court. She also voted to confirm Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State, and Gina Haspel as CIA Director. This support of the President’s nominees is not indicative of a complete alignment with the priorities of Republican voters in North Dakota, however. While Heitkamp did vote in support of the Republican-sponsored Dodd-Frank legislation, she voted against repeal of the Affordable Care Act, as well as the Republican tax reform bill. She has also consistently expressed concerns over the effects of the president’s tariff policies on North Dakota farmers. In her own ads, Heitkamp frames her votes as defending North Dakota values, which means supporting the president when it’s a good fit for the state, and forging her own path when it isn’t. Given that she’s a strong campaigner and has the broad name recognition that comes with incumbency, Heitkamp would seem to be well-positioned to mount a strong reelection bid. Her fundraising to date supports this contention; the latest FEC figures show that Heitkamp holds a two-to-one advantage over Cramer in cash on-hand.
Though incumbency status can definitely be helpful, the specifics of this race present particular challenges for Heitkamp’s effort to keep her seat. First, the fact that all of North Dakota constitutes a single congressional district means that Cramer too has won a state-wide legislative race (three actually, with each successive race won by a larger margin than his previous victory). This allows him to lay claim to a state-wide constituency and campaign network just as credibly as Heitkamp can. Second, Cramer is especially close to President Trump, which by and large is a plus in North Dakota. Not only has Trump endorsed Cramer, but the president visited the state in late June and shared a stage with Kramer at his Fargo rally. Cramer has capitalized on this association by running ads critical of Heitkamp for not being sufficiently supportive of the president’s agenda. Vice President Pence has also visited the state twice in the last four months to attend fundraisers for Cramer. Cramer is clearly betting that associating himself closely with the president will pay dividends in Republican-leaning North Dakota on Election Day.
The wild card in the race is the effect of ad buys from out-of-state interests. Existing work documents the huge growth and impact of outside group spending in Senate races since the Citizens United and SpeechNow.org decisions of 2010. What makes this spending especially influential is that voters see the ads sponsored by such groups as more trustworthy than typical campaign ads, since they don’t come from the more suspect candidates or political parties. Moreover, outside spending now tends to outpace candidate spending in competitive races. Already in the North Dakota race, the Koch-affiliated group Americans for Prosperity has sponsored two ad buys. Interestingly, one, a digital ad, praised Heitkamp for supporting the Dodd-Frank reform legislation, while the other, a television ad, criticized her for her vote against the Republican tax package. With the upcoming confirmation vote on Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to fill Justice Kennedy’s Supreme Court seat, North Dakota voters can expect a great deal more. The conservative Judicial Crisis Network recently weighed in, running ads encouraging Heitkamp and other red-state senators to support Kavanaugh’s nomination, and the National Rifle Association just pledged a similar ad buy in North Dakota and several other key states.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the liberal group Demand Justice has announced an ad buy in five markets, North Dakota included, where Democratic senators are up for reelection in states won by President Trump. Similarly, Planned Parenthood Action Fund is running ads in two states, with digital ads in several more, including North Dakota. Given that outside groups generally tend to intervene in competitive races later in the election cycle, this early activity is likely just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to outside advertising.
What this activity highlights is the difficult position candidates like Heitkamp find themselves in. Arguably, their opponents are more closely in sync with their states’ electorates than they are, which complicates reelection efforts even in less highly-charged election years. For the 2018 election, the battle for control of the Supreme Court and progressives’ general loathing of President Trump magnifies this effect. The pressure brought to bear by outside groups on Heitkamp in North Dakota heightens her vulnerability. Especially frustrating for such candidates is the aggressive political activity of kindred ideological groups, which runs counter to the approach that parties traditionally follow, which is to avoid placing their incumbents in positions where a particular vote could jeopardize their seats. Much to Heitkamp’s detriment, outside pressure groups seemingly have no such scruples. The end result could be that in North Dakota and states where incumbent senators find themselves in a similar predicament, Election Day could constitute a rude awakening.
Michael Bath is Professor of Political Science at Concordia College. His research is focused on organized interests and lobbying, public policy, and public election financing.
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