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Around the U.S. in 50 Days: North and South Dakota

The focus in South Dakota will be the lone congressional race. Republican Kristi Noem will seek reelection. In 2010, she defeated two A-list opponents to win the Republican nomination which made national party officials, anxious to break the perception that the GOP was the party of white men, to actively and seriously support her candidacy. And in the general election, she defeated Democratic incumbent Stephanie Herseth-Sandin with 48-46% of the vote.

What made the victory even more impressive is that Herseth-Sandlin had stressed her independence from the Democratic caucus. For example, she broke ranks in voting against Obamacare, against TARP legislation and against cap-and-trade. However, Noem directed her attacks on the fact that Herseth-Sandlin has supported and voted for the leadership Nancy Pelosi who was, at the time, a more disliked figure than Obama. With the GOP in control of the House, the tables have turned somewhat. Noem does not have an incumbent to attack, nor is Pelosi the Speaker of the House. It is conceivable that a potential Democrat could use the low approval ratings of Congress against Noem in an effort to turn the tables and get a leg up. Her biggest challenge would had been a rematch although those hopes were dashed when Herseth-Sandlin terminated her federal fund raising accounts in March of 2011, thus ending any hopes of that rematch.
As of now, Noem has a decided edge and has built up a war chest of campaign funds. Her leadership role among the 2010 freshman House class and liason role to John Boehner coupled with the fact she is regional leader for the RNCC guarantee that the GOP will fight tooth and nail to retain this seat. Also, an analysis by Opensecrets.org shows that although she accepts PAC money, 56% of her campaign funds come from individual donors indicating she has developed a decent grassroots network of support. And finally, Noem certainly has the conservative fiscal and social credentials and backing to appeal to voters. As a result, it will be difficult to unseat her.
The dynamics are slightly different in North Dakota as there is a Governor’s race, Senate race and the at-large seat in the House is being vacated. At the top of the ticket, Obama has little chance of winning this state and laying claim to their 3 electoral votes. His approval ratings are well below the national average and hover in the 30s. This does not bode well all the way around for Democrats in North Dakota. For example, Republican Governor Jack Darymple, who assumed office when popular Governor John Hoeven won the Senate race, will run for a full term. Thus far, his only opposition may be state senate minority leader Ryan Taylor. In short, Darymple leads a state that has largely been by-passed by the country’s economic woes and has actually showed job growth.
Their lone House seat is an open race since incumbent Republican Rick Berg is running for the Senate seat. Some national attention has been focused on this sparsely populated state as Democrats see an opportunity to win a House seat. Pam Gulleson will most likely be their nominee and feel her chances are enhanced since several Republicans are lining up to succeed Berg. Perhaps the most viable among them are Bette Grande, a state representative and Brian Kalk of the Public Utilities Commission. Being an energy-producing state, the PUC in North Dakota is akin to the Railroad Commission in Texas. Regardless of who the GOP nominee is, they would be favored to win this election especially since the GOP names at the top of the ticket will have a coat tail effect at this level.
Which brings us to the North Dakota Senate race. Incumbent Democrat Kent Conrad hit the Democrats with a broadside when he announced his intentions to retire from the Senate. It really was unexpected and one that set the party back at the time. Since then, they have adjusted somewhat and believe they have found their candidate in Heidi Heitkamp. SAhe, along with her radio personality brother, certainly have adequate name recognition in the state. Also, she is the former Attorney General of North Dakota and her biggest accomplishment was to help spearhead the fight against Big Tobacco that led to a multibillion dollar settlement. That put her name on the Democratic radar. However, in 2000 she lost handily to John Hoeven in a bid to become Governor. In 2010, she decided against another run against Hoeven in his Senate bid to succeed Byron Dorgan.
Heitkamp will likely face current North Dakota Republican Rep. Rick Berg. Berg has all of two year’s experience in the House after defeating Earl Pomeroy in 2010 for the lone House seat. Since joining Congress, Berg has simply enhanced his conservative resume through his anti-regulation talk, especially as concerns the EPA which is not exactly the most well-liked agency in North Dakota. His stances concerning taxes and the deficit reduction, including his leadership appointment by Boehner in negotiations, along with his strong conservative stands on social issues (unabashedly pro-life and pro-gun) will not hurt him with the voters of the state.

Heitkamp will point to two things in her race against Berg. First, there is the fact that Berg ran against Pomeroy in 2010 on a platform against the idea of career politicians. She can say that jumping to the Senate after only one term in the House shows that Berg simply used that seat for his own political aspirations and is himself a career politician. That line of attack would seem a little silly since one House term hardly hangs the “career politician” tag around one’s neck and the Conrad resignation was unexpected. And as he and those in the North Dakota GOP leadership have explained, the House seems to understand that Washington must be fundamentally changed, but the Senate has not gotten that message yet. Hence, Berg can run against Washington by actually using his limited tenure in Washington as a template. She will also attack him based on his allegedly low approval ratings in the state. However, that is like begging the question. When Congress as a whole has approval ratings near 12%, chances are any poll in any state will not show stellar numbers for any particular member of Congress.
Also, Heitkamp will not face a challenge for her party’s nomination, but Berg will have to fight off Duane Sand, the former Director of Americans for Prosperity’s Dakota branch. They are a pro-business, anti-regulation advocacy group. He is also a former member of the military having served in the Persian Gulf after 9/11.
Just as it will be an uphill battle for Sand to defeat Berg for the GOP nod, it will be equally difficult for Heitkamp to defeat Berg given the advantages he has now built up. He seems to have the wind at his back politically. Ideally, the scenario would be for Berg to have a few terms in the House before jumping to the Senate. However, the retirement of Conrad created a unique opportunity and Berg would have been nuts not to strike while the iron was hot.
In conclusion, the GOP retains their House seats in North and South Dakota and the Governor’s Office in North Dakota. Obama wins neither state and Rick Berg is elected to the Senate.

Running total thus far:
Obama 83 electoral votes to 107 for the GOP nominee;
Net gain of 2 Governors;
Net gain of 3 Senate seats, and;
Net loss of 6 House seats.

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