Republicans say they’re on the cusp of delivering a knockout blow to North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp — and virtually ending Democrats’ hopes of winning the Senate.
Heitkamp is down in public polls by a significant margin, and most political handicappers think Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) is the favorite to beat her. If she goes down, Democrats would basically have to run the table in every other battleground race to take the chamber.
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Republicans have had Heitkamp losing by double digits in their private polling for weeks, according to a GOP strategist working on Senate races. Democrats argue the race is closer but acknowledge she is down even in their polling, after her vote against Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court.
“At this point, it’s really ours to lose,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). “The race, probably to her detriment, has been nationalized around the Supreme Court and Trump.”
In an interview on Wednesday, Heitkamp acknowledged she’s facing an uphill battle but hinted that she believes Cramer could still self-immolate, pointing to his comments on sexual harassment and a new trade deal with Canada. In a story published last weekend, Cramer told The New York Times that sexual assault accusations and the #MeToo campaign against Kavanaugh were a “movement toward victimization” of men. He also was scolded by Canadians over his comments about new NAFTA negotiations.
“There’s a level of arrogance and rash statements that doesn’t reflect the typical North Dakota, common-sense contemplative, work-together kind of attitude,” Heitkamp said. “You can say all these crazy things, but sometimes the crazy things you say and how you behave has real consequences here.”
And her allies assert that Heitkamp is far from done. They point to her universal name ID, retail campaign skills and her surprise win in 2012 despite being down in the polls. In a state of just 750,000 people, and where perhaps 150,000 votes could win the race, winning over even 15,000 voters in the next month could make the difference, they argue.
“This is certainly the state that seems to be the most vulnerable. But that was probably the case a year ago,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). But he added, “It’s a tiny state, where you can make a lot of progress” meeting voters in person.
Democrats say their private polling shows Heitkamp’s numbers recovering after dropping by double digits during the Kavanaugh fight, according to two Democrats familiar with the race. Heitkamp came out against Kavanaugh shortly before he was confirmed.
She’s also seen a gush of online money into her campaign coffers since she came out against Kavanaugh, Democrats say. But she needs to mount a dramatic comeback in order for Democrats to have any shot at taking the Senate. It’s a long shot in any case, but nearly impossible if she loses.
Democrats need to net two seats to win majority, even as a half-dozen of their incumbents are in tough races. The party has four opportunities to flip Republican-held seats. But if Heitkamp loses they’d need to win three of those four, plus hold nine seats in states carried by Trump in 2016.
“I’m very confident that we’re going to take that seat” in North Dakota, said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the No. 4 Senate Republican, who’s often cautious about prognosticating. “And I have a lot of confidence that we’re going to keep the majority.”
Cramer, who declined an interview for this story, told the Times that Heitkamp is “toast” if the election becomes nationalized. And Democrats acknowledge that Heitkamp will lose if voters cast their ballots based primarily on party affiliation — her retail political talents notwithstanding.
“North Dakota’s going to be a test … for tribalism and respect for retail politics,” said former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.). “Retail politics still exists in North Dakota. And I would venture to say most North Dakotans have seen or know Heidi.”
Heitkamp has been counted out before. After her 2012 victory, she famously held up a copy of the Fargo Forum that blared her opponent Rick Berg’s 10-point lead in pre-election polling. But the polls are even more dire this time. A Fox News survey last week had Cramer up by 12 points, and rolling averages show Heitkamp’s in the most danger, by far, of any Trump-state Democrat.
This “has from Day One been the most vulnerable Senate seat in the country. From Day One,” said Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.). “It may be a surprise to Washington, but it’s no surprise to North Dakota.”
Yet for all the talk that her vote against Kavanaugh doomed her, Heitkamp believes the race will turn on other issues: her state’s struggles to sell and store its soybean crop amid Trump’s trade wars, for example, or her work fighting to lift a ban on oil exports.
“Things will change between now and the election,” she said.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee scrapped a cable ad buy after Heitkamp’s polling numbers dropped during the Kavanaugh controversy, but the GOP campaign arm still has $350,000 reserved during the final weeks. Democrats say they believe Republicans canceled that ad buy to seed a narrative that the race is already over.
Senate Leadership Fund, the main outside super PAC for Senate Republicans, has $1.5 million reserved over the homestretch, according to media buying data.
Still, Democrats will outspend Republicans over the airwaves: Heitkamp and her Democratic allies have more than $3 million reserved in the final weeks of the race, and that’s before her big fundraising infusion. Heitkamp has raised more than three times the amount Cramer has this election cycle.
Because North Dakota is so cheap to advertise in compared with other states, and because polling the state is notoriously difficult, Democrats say they will not pull out of the state no matter how bad it might look from the outside. The main super PAC for Senate Democrats, Senate Majority PAC, has $1.3 million reserved there over the final month.
After speeding through the Capitol looking stressed and avoiding reporters during the Kavanaugh fracas, Heitkamp was chatty and relaxed on Wednesday. She spent the weekend in her home state, and said she returned to Washington content with her opposition to the Supreme Court nominee.
“Overthinking the politics, I can’t do that anymore,” she said of her votes and how they might affect her campaign. She said it didn’t make sense to “compromise what you think is the right thing because it may be the politically expedient thing.”
Heitkamp has repeatedly said if she merely wanted to win reelection, she would have supported Kavanaugh. Whether that’s true remains to be seen. But her closest friends in Congress say she genuinely has no regrets.
“She’s as determined as ever. I talked to her yesterday, a long talk. She’s giving it all she has, and she will up to the very end,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who was the only Democrat to support Kavanaugh. “She feels good about her vote, her purpose and her reasons.”
James Arkin contributed to this report.