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Published November 07 2012

Analysis: Heidi Heitkamp brings it home

Fargo - Heidi Heitkamp’s U.S. Senate victory Tuesday was a case study in how the East was won.

Big margins of victory in eastern North Dakota gave the Democratic former attorney general the cushion she needed to overcome advantages elsewhere in the state for U.S. Rep. Rick Berg, and ultimately propelled Heitkamp to a narrow win.

Berg conceded the race Wednesday afternoon with Heitkamp holding a lead of about 3,000 votes.

Analysts say likability, a lack of other compelling races and a willingness by voters to split their tickets were other key factors in deciding the close race.

Of the state’s 52 counties, 28 went to Berg. But Heitkamp carried a commanding edge in the state’s populous eastern areas, winning Cass County by almost 9,900 votes and Grand Forks County by about 3,400.

And Richland County flipped from a narrow Berg victory in 2010 – when the Republican state lawmaker from Fargo ousted nine-term congressman Earl Pomeroy – to a 1,300-vote Heitkamp win this year.

Berg’s biggest edge was in Burleigh County, which he won by 4,200 votes. But that was less than half his 8,800-vote margin in the county in 2010 against Pomeroy in the U.S. House race.

It was one of many counties in which Heitkamp cut deeply into Berg’s 2010 support. She won nine more counties than Pomeroy did that year, and ran up better margins – and more competitive losses – across the state.

The fast-growing Oil Patch counties that favored Berg heavily did not see turnout boosts commensurate with their population growth. In Williams County, one of the fastest-growing areas in the nation, just 204 more ballots were cast this year than in the 2008 presidential election.

Overall, a few thousand more ballots were cast this year than in 2008, but turnout as a percentage of eligible voters was down from 65 percent to 61 percent.

Mark Jendrysik, chairman of the Department of Public Administration and political science at the University of North Dakota, said the lack of other competitive statewide races may have kept some Berg supporters home.

“Some Republican voters might say, ‘Well, they don’t need me to vote,’ ” he said.

He also said Heitkamp’s campaign did a good job turning out the vote in left-leaning areas while connecting with voters in more conservative areas.

“You can’t just win in North Dakota by winning in one chunk of the state,” he said.

Barbara Headrick, chairwoman of the political science department at Minnesota State University Moorhead, said Heitkamp effectively peeled off voters who also voted for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

She won 18 counties that Romney, who carried the state with 58 percent of the vote, also won.

“The truth is that North Dakota voters are willing to split their tickets,” she said.

Headrick said Heitkamp ran a traditional campaign that focused heavily on voter interaction, something that generally plays well in the state.

“There’s a reason we call these people by their first name in North Dakota,” she said.

She said that contributed to high likability marks that may ultimately have been the trump card – a sentiment echoed by Robert Wood, an associate professor of political science at UND.

He said her personality helped overcome what many considered inherent advantages for a sitting Republican congressman in the state.

“It can all boil down to the personal appeal of Heidi Heitkamp,” he said. “I don’t think you can take any other Democrat in this state and substitute them into that race and come out with that same outcome.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502