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Published November 08 2012

Forum editorial: Is political landscape changing?

Following Heidi Heitkamp’s impressive win in North Dakota’s U.S. Senate race, some state Democrats are hinting of a resurgence of Democratic fortunes. Not so fast.

Heitkamp’s victory over one-term Congressman Rick Berg was the only Democratic win among statewide contests. All others, including the allegedly no-party superintendent of public instruction, went to Republican incumbents or newcomers. All of ’em.

Well, some Democratic analysts say, their folks made gains in the Republican-dominated Legislature. Yes, there were a few from Cass County’s new legislative district and a few others scattered across the state. But the flip side of the coin is that a few Democratic incumbents lost. The net result is there will be no real change in the partisan mix at the Legislature. Republicans maintained huge margins in the House and the Senate.

The Heitkamp win over Berg, while a big deal, cannot be seen as a solid political trendsetter. It was fundamentally a spirited contest between two vastly different personalities, two contrasting campaign styles and two expensive television ad and direct mail blitzes. The Senate race was significant in that Heitkamp won where she had to, despite a red tide of Republican wins that ranged from the presidential choice to state races. In the wide swath of counties she won, Republicans took most of the other contests, in particular, grassroots legislative tilts.

That being said, Republicans would be wise to pay attention to trends, however slight, in the big population counties of the Red River Valley – where the votes are. As one Republican Party spokesman said after Tuesday’s voting, Cass County is a “battleground county.” The same is true for Grand Forks County. Both have been moving from red to purple (blue next?) in recent election cycles. Cass is among the state’s youngest counties. Younger voters tend to question or reject many foundational GOP tenets, especially the party’s stance on hot-button social issues.

Finally, the real “North Dakota way” has been safely Republican in Bismarck and opportunistically Democratic in Washington. It’s difficult to gauge, but some measure of Heitkamp’s support had to be concern the congressional delegation could go all Republican at a time when the U.S. Senate and the White House are in Democratic hands. After all, the state had a strong voice in Washington during some 25 years of Sen. Kent Conrad, Sen. Byron Dorgan and Congressman Earl Pomeroy, all Democrats.

Food for thought in a fascinating post-election time.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.