One of the challenges facing North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp has long been her precarious position as a Democrat in a reliably red state. But in the final hours of a closely watched reelection campaign she is predicted to lose, Heitkamp has tried to convince voters her party ties are her greatest strength, emphasizing her role as a centrist politician with a bipartisan track record.
“This is an election on where are we going to go, how are we going to speak as the American people to solve problems,” she told supporters in Bismarck, North Dakota, on Monday, according to the New York Times. “And I believe at the end of the day when you have someone who promised you one thing — and that is to be 100 percent with one side — that is not somebody who is going to solve that problem.”
It’s not clear the message will stick. Heitkamp’s Republican opponent, North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer is leading polls by an average of 11.4 percentage points, according to RealClearPolitics. And several election forecasts have predicted a win for Cramer, the state’s only Congressman.
But in a year when record early voting is already complicating midterm predictions, some political observers say it’s too soon to write off Heitkamp — who has far out-raised Cramer, raking in millions in the final weeks of her campaign, and has upset expectations before in a state with a voting pool of about 300,000. She was elected in 2012 with a surprise victory by a margin of fewer than 3,000 votes.
“She needs 150,000 votes. If she can get 150,000 votes, she wins,” says Robert (Bo) Wood, a political science professor at the University of North Dakota, who studies state and local politics. “I think that there’s a very real chance that she could pull this off.”
Still, Heitkamp is facing different obstacles than in 2012. “I think that Cramer’s a better candidate than [2012 Republican Senate nominee] Rick Berg was, and Heitkamp does have a federal voting record now, which makes it harder for her to run as an outsider candidate,” says Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, which has predicted a Cramer victory. “And it may also be that North Dakota has just become more Republican since that time.“
Heitkamp was already considered to be one of the most endangered incumbent Democrats in the Senate when she voted against Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court last month. She has explained that decision in personal terms, invoking her late mother, who was sexually assaulted as a teenager.
Heitkamp acknowledged in a 60 Minutes interview that confirming Kavanaugh would have been the “politically expedient vote.” “Do I have work that I wanna continue to do? Absolutely,” she said. “Do I wanna compromise my principles and my conscience for that job? No. And do I wanna compromise the Supreme Court for that job? No.”
That decision earned her condemnation from many Republicans and a $12.5-million windfall from supporters across the country. But her campaign stumbled when a newspaper ad aimed at Cramer misidentified victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse — a mistake Heitkamp described as a “very flagrant error of the campaign.” Cramer had already been leading Heitkamp in the polls, but his margin widened slightly after the Kavanaugh hearings.
Wood, the North Dakota professor, says he will be closely watching turnout in the state’s urban areas and eastern counties, which lean more Democratic, including Jamestown, Grand Forks and Valley City. Heitkamp’s Election Day schedule includes campaign stops in all three.
“I think if her campaign can turn out those people in numbers that are even kind of close to a presidential election cycle, then that’s going to offset the normal turnout that you see every election cycle in the rural areas,” Wood says. “If she can’t do well in those counties, then I would call it pretty fast. But I think people that are saying, ‘Yeah, Cramer’s going to just blow it out and he’s going to get 65% of the vote share,’ I would caution against that.”
The election in North Dakota — a state that voted for Trump by a 36-point margin in 2016 — stands to impact the future makeup of Congress. Democrats are still poised to retake the U.S. House. But they are less likely to win control of the Senate. And Republicans are all but assured to retain control of the Senate if Heitkamp loses.
Heitkamp was elected in 2012 with broad support from Native Americans, who are now disproportionately affected by a new state voter ID law, which is expected to hinder voting access for as many as 5,000 Native Americans. Many Native Americans, who are mobilizing their communities to vote in spite of the hurdle, have rallied behind Heitkamp once again.
In a video posted to Twitter on Sunday, Heitkamp touted her work on legislation that deregulated community banks and credit unions — a bill that President Trump signed into law in May with Heitkamp by his side. And she also condemned the President’s “terrible trade war that is costing our farmers literally millions of dollars and jeopardizing rural communities.”
Trump, who is popular in North Dakota, has twice visited the state to stump for Cramer. And while the Trump Administration’s new tariffs have already negatively affected soybean farmers in the state, it’s not yet clear the effect has been strong enough to sway the vote of Republican farmers.
But even Cramer seems hesitant to call the race too soon. “I feel pretty confident,” he said Monday, according to the Associated Press. “But I expect this race is closer than the polling has demonstrated.”