Think politics is expensive on the coasts? In battleground states? Think again. There is one race that is shaping up to be the most expensive race per capita ever this year, and its for a US Senate seat from North Dakota. While most people think of North Dakota as reliably red, North Dakotan's are surprisingly independent, and even have historically supported many socialist policies. For years there was the "Dream Team" of Kent Conrad, Byron Dorgan, and Earl Pomeroy filling the states at-large congressional seat and two senate seat, all democrats, and all reliably re-elected.
Heidi Heitkamp (D) is the incumbent in the Sentate race, but her opponent, Kevin Cramer (R) has been the state's at large congressional representative for as long as she has been in the senate. Both names are well known in North Dakota, so incumbency doesn't have the advantage it usually would. In this state that went for Trump by 63% compared to 27% for Clinton, you'd think promoting Cramer from congressman to senator would be a no brainier, but you'd be surprised by North Dakotan's political views. North Dakota is more complex than you might think, politically.
From Tax Commissioner to Senator
Heitkamp ran for State Tax Commissioner in a 1986 election against Republican Marshal Moore, and won with 62% of the vote. In 1992 she ran for North Dakota Attorney General, and again won with 62% of the vote against her Republican challenger. In 2000 she decided to run for governor after the long time Republican Governor, Ed Schafer decided not to run again. During her campaign she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which was treated and went into remission which took her off the campaign trail, and she lost the election to her opponent, John Hoven (R) who is now the state's other senator. After her gubernatorial defeat, she worked in the private sector for a synthetic fuels plant. In 2012, she again for public office, this time for the United States Senate. Her opponent, Rick Berg (R), had served a single term in the House of Representatives. She won that election by less than 1% of votes cast.
While Cramer has been a reliable vote for the Republican Party Platform, Heitkamp has remained more Independent from her party. Her policy stances have more to do with how they will affect North Dakotans, especially the agriculture industry, than with aligning with her party. This has lead some progressives to decry her, and some republicans to love her, including possibly President Trump (we'll get to that later though). Agriculture is a major voter issue in North Dakota, unsurprisingly, and any attempts to separate SNAP from the Farm Bill for example are not looked upon well by a large portion of the population. The current escalation of tariffs between the US and China are hurting North Dakota farmers, and are very unpopular. Heitkamp's positions on these issues are resonating more with many North Dakotan's than Cramer's support of Trump on these issues.
Is North Dakota Actually That Red?
Socialism is alive and well in North Dakota, and the state's Republican Senator, John Hoeven, actually oversaw a large portion of that socialism for seven years as the CEO of the state owned Bank of North Dakota and for 6 years as the chair of the industrial commerce commission. Just don't tell Republicans that. There is also a state owned flour mill, and a state owned oil refinery was floated as a possibility during the state's recent oil boom. The state was governed in large part by a political party known as the Non-Partisan League for many years, which was a socialist party. North Dakota is not pro small government or anti large government when you really dig into it. The state is very much pro efficient and effective government. This partially explains the split ticket voting that typically comes out of general elections in North Dakota. Reliably supporting the Republican Presidential Candidate, while supporting Democrats for House and Senate seats.
The balance of power in the Senate is very close, with 51 Republicans and 49 Democrats. Any race that is close to being a toss up is bound to attract national money. Where North Dakota differs is population. At just 775,393 people estimated to live in the state, North Dakota is ranked 47th in population, yet this race is one of the closest contests in the senate. Money is pouring into the state. There is literally zero TV advertising time available between now and the election. Its all been bought by campaigns, PACs, and political parties. Radio time is also becoming quite scarce. The Fargo Forum has added pages to its print edition to accommodate the extra advertising. It is hard to find a billboard that doesn't have a political ad on it. Cramer himself has said that a motivating factor in his decision to run for Senate was the pressure from Oil Barron Harold Hamm, who is bankrolling his campaign.
How Will The Race Shape Up?
At this point, polls are all within the margin of error, swinging momentarily towards one or the other. It will likely come down to which base is more motivated to get to the polls, and who's ads are better at affecting that motivation.