North Dakota’s political history stands in contrast with most other states. Voters routinely split tickets between Republicans and Democrats, and in years when national issues have driven the debate, voters remain focused on hyper-local issues.
This year, however, as the state emerges as one of the most closely watched battlegrounds in the fight for control of the Senate, the debate in North Dakota is taking on a distinctly national flavor. There is a local angle, to be sure, but Republican Rick Berg and Democrat Heidi Heitkamp sound more like their counterparts across the country than the state is used to.
Mitt Romney’s decision to choose Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate has reintroduced Ryan’s budget proposal as a major issue in the race. Heitkamp has blasted Berg for voting for budget plans that Ryan has spearheaded during the past several years.
Supporters say Ryan’s plan would restore fiscal responsibility to runaway government spending, while critics say it would put too much of the burden on seniors and the poor while cutting taxes for millionaires. Berg has voted twice in favor of Ryan’s proposal. Now that presidential contender Mitt Romney has chosen Ryan as his running mate, Heitkamp says Ryan’s budget – and Berg’s support for it – deserve a second look.
“We’ve talked a lot about the 20 percent cut in crop insurance that Congressman Ryan and Congressman Berg have supported. We’ve talked about the elimination of the sugar program which Congressman Ryan and Congressman Berg have supported in caucus,” Heitkamp said. “Now that [Ryan] is the standard-bearer for the ideas that are going to be raised in the presidential, it demands a discussion again about the Ryan budget and what it means.”
Berg says Romney’s choice in running mate allows him to focus on the choice North Dakota voters face. Ryan’s plan is a starting point, he said, while Senate Democrats have gone more than three years without offering their own budget proposal.
“If we’re going to get a handle on our spending, we have to get a spending plan. Is it perfect? Absolutely not. Is there negotiation that has to take place? Absolutely,” Berg said. Picking Ryan “makes a clear choice in the election, and I think what it’s saying is Mitt Romney is serious about fixing the problems that we’re facing.”
Nationalizing the race on their own terms makes sense for both candidates. Polling shows Ryan’s budget proposals, especially the changes to Medicare and Medicaid, are deeply unpopular. And President Obama is likely to lose in North Dakota, making it essential for Berg to tie Heitkamp to the unpopular incumbent.
“My opponent has campaigned for [President Obama], supports ObamaCare and will support his agenda in the Senate,” Berg says.
In a campaign that has so far focused on local issues like flooding in Minot or the booming Bakken oil fields, bigger national issues are elbowing for attention. And with control of the Senate up for grabs – Republicans would need to win a net of just four Democratic-held seats to hold a 51-seat majority next January – the race has added importance.
But in private, neither side expresses confidence that they will have the advantage on Election Day. Recent polls conducted by Democratic polling firms show Heitkamp leading, while both national and North Dakota strategists say the race is a coin-flip.
“What I just tell everybody is that we’re tied. This is a race that is very, very close,” Heitkamp said.
Both sides have made hay of the farm bill. Historically, the bill has drawn together a bipartisan coalition of farm-state members of Congress. But the new House Republican majority, divided between long-time members who are used to cutting deals to win legislative victories and freshmen conservatives determined to cut government at all costs, has deadlocked. The Senate has passed a version, but the House adjourned for its annual August recess without moving a new farm bill out of committee, and with deep divisions remaining between centrist Republicans who want to cut some spending and conservatives who want to deeper cuts.
Berg is leading an effort within the House to collect signatures for a so-called discharge petition. By collecting signatures from 218 members, half the House, Berg could force the farm bill to the floor for a vote. And he’s irritated, both with Republican leadership in the House and with Senate Democrats.
“We need to take that bill up, and I’m extremely frustrated that Republican leadership hasn’t taken it up,” Berg said. “The last thing we need to do is create the same uncertainty with agriculture as we have with other parts of our economy.”
The farm bill “is a great example of what can happen in this country if you can put aside your partisan differences,” Heitkamp said. “Unfortunately, that’s not happening in the House of Representatives.”
Heitkamp brought Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the Michigan Democrat who heads the Senate Agriculture Committee, to campaign for farmers’ votes in July.
Underscoring the nationwide implications the race will have, outside groups backing both Heitkamp and Berg have spent millions of dollars on advertising in North Dakota. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has booked $1.2 million in television advertising, a committee spokesman said, while American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS – two affiliated groups run by prominent Republican strategists including Karl Rove – have spent $717,000 so far on five different attack ads.
That spending can drive a statewide conversation, distracting from the messages each side would like to deliver. Both Heitkamp and Berg have spent large portions of their campaign resources responding to outside attacks.
“This is the most cynical part of this whole political process, and it’s being driven by some of the wealthiest people in this country who are trying to buy an election,” Heitkamp said. “It makes it extraordinarily difficult when you can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, and literally millions of dollars, telling a lie every day on television.”
Berg acknowledged that outside groups make it harder to drive his own message, but he said there’s little he can do about it. “The outside groups we have no influence or control over, so we have to push our solutions. But I think we’ve had great discussions,” he said.
Typically, debates allow candidates to focus their messages to voters. It remains to be seen, however, just how often Berg and Heitkamp will share a debate stage.
Earlier this year, Heitkamp’s campaign asked Berg to participate in seven debates. Berg has so far agreed to only two half-hour debates on opposite ends of the state. Heitkamp points to races in Minnesota and South Dakota, where incumbents have already started debating their opponents, and to the race for Berg’s own seat – last month, Republican Kevin Cramer and Democrat Pam Gulleson announced they had agreed to six debates in September and October.
“In the end, the undecided people, the people who are looking for answers … they know they can’t rely on 30-second commercials. I think it’s respectful to those people,” Heitkamp said.
For his part, Berg says he’s eager to get on stage, in order to drive the contrast between the two contenders. “The debates will help show the clear difference in the campaign,” he said. “As this race develops, it’s going to be a clear choice, just like nationally.”
-Reid Wilson is editor-in-chief of National Journal’s Hotline On-Call and a freelance correspondent for the Great Plains Examiner.