We have eight days to go until election day, and the conventional wisdom is Senator Heidi Heitkamp has had her goose cooked.
There’s a trail of bad polling for the incumbent dating all the way back to February. Cook Political Report, Inside Elections, and Sabato’s Crystal Ball all see the race tilting towards her challenger Kevin Cramer.
The thing is, Heitkamp has delivered a major shock before. The polling in 2012 was bad too, at one point showing her behind Republican opponent Rick Berg by 10 points, but she pulled it out that year.
She can this year too, for a number of reasons.
First, complacency is a real issue for Cramer right now. The odds for controlling the Senate have been drifting in favor of Republicans for weeks now. As I mentioned above, the polling in North Dakota has been shifting Cramer’s way too. But in a state like North Dakota, where there are few other competitive partisan races on the statewide ballot, that confidence can translate into apathy. Especially if North Dakota’s notoriously volatile weather comes into play. Also, there are some hotly contested ballot measures – including a couple, such as Measures 1 and 3, with strong left wing support – which could tilt turnout in Heitkamp’s favor.
“We’re fighting a complacency issue right now,” Cramer told me earlier this month. I wouldn’t underestimate the potential for that complacency issue to turn into a real problem.
Second, we still don’t have a farm bill, and the trade war Trump launched against China is lingering. Heitkamp’s campaign messaging has been hammering on this issue for weeks now, and you can expect that to continue through election day. Rural North Dakota is deeply Republican, and pro-Trump, which makes them a voting bloc Cramer should be able to rely on. But Heitkamp has the virtue of a solid point about both the farm bill and the trade war. It’s creating anxiety in Cramer’s base at a time when he really can’t afford it.
Third, Republicans have absolutely bungled the health care issue. Despite control of both Congress and the White House, the failed to “repeal and replace” Obamacare as they vowed to do for years under the Obama administration. Now Democrats, who been dragging Obamacare behind them like a weighted sled in one election cycle after another, are suddenly emboldened on the issue. Again, Heitkamp’s campaign messaging has hammered Cramer on the health care issue, and while he can say that he’s voted the right way in the House, the proof for voters is in results. Republicans had a chance to reform health care and didn’t get it done, and now candidates like Cramer may pay the price.
Fourth, the money is going to matter. Let’s not forget the mountain of money Heitkamp has in her campaign right now. In the first 17 days of October, following her vote against Kavanaugh, the incumbent raised multiples of what she put in the bank during the entirety of the previous quarter. She took in over $12 million in those roughly two weeks alone, and she can use that money to drown out Cramer who has lagged behind Heitkamp in fundraising this entire cycle.
Fifth, Heitkamp has been doing a good job of firing up her left-wing base. Between her vote against Kavanaugh, and efforts to paint North Dakota’s voter ID laws (recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court) as voter suppression, liberal voters in the state are engaged.
To review, Heitkamp has two solid issues to batter Cramer with and a ton of money with which to tell that story. Meanwhile Cramer is stuck trying to convince Republicans that the race isn’t over yet while Heitkamp’s base is energized.
A lot of people may have written off this race, but that’s a mistake. The question of who North Dakota’s next Senator is going to be is still very much in doubt.