Why Isn’t North Dakota’s Senate Race a Tossup?

by Stuart Rothenberg December 2, 2011 · 10:06 AM EST

Two polls conducted by reputable Democratic pollsters show Republican Rep. Rick Berg to be in serious trouble in the North Dakota Senate race, especially now that former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp (D) has entered the race.

The first survey, conducted in mid-August well before Heitkamp jumped into the contest, was conducted by Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group. It found voters preferring Berg over a Democrat by a mere 4 points — 44 percent to 40 percent — in a generic Senate ballot test.

Only 33 percent of respondents rated Berg’s job performance as good or excellent, while 55 percent termed it only fair or poor. Berg, the prohibitive favorite for his party’s Senate nomination, has dismal personal ratings (31 percent positive to 34 percent negative), suggesting he has problems back home.

“I have been polling in North Dakota since 1985, and Congressman Berg’s personal and performance ratings are the lowest by far I have ever measured for any federally elected official in the state, Republican or Democrat,” veteran Democratic pollster Geoff Garin observed in a polling memo.

The more recent Democratic survey, conducted for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee by the Mellman Group, found Heitkamp leading Berg by 5 points, 47 percent to 42 percent, even though President Barack Obama was trailing potential GOP opponent Mitt Romney by 14 points in the same survey.

Mellman’s poll also found Berg’s job performance ratings (28 percent positive to 56 percent negative) and personal ratings (42 percent favorable to 39 percent unfavorable) much worse than Heitkamp’s job performance ratings as state attorney general (52 percent positive to 28 percent negative) and personal ratings (54 percent favorable to 25 percent unfavorable).

Heitkamp, of course, hasn’t been on the ballot in a decade, and she has never run in a federal election, which invariably has a different dynamic than a state contest. Federal races tend to be more partisan and ideological than state races.

“With Heitkamp already ahead in the horse race and so much more highly regarded than Berg, she is in a very strong position to win this contest,” veteran pollster Mark Mellman said in a memo accompanying the results.

Not surprisingly, the most recent poll produced a series of ratings changes. The DSCC asserted that the North Dakota Senate race now was a tossup. Roll Call moved the race from Safe Republican to Likely Republican, while the Cook Political Report moved it from Likely Republican to Leans Republican.

My own view is much like the Cook Report’s general assessment that “Heitkamp’s entry into the race has turned Democrats’ prospects here from hopeless to having a fighting chance.” But a fighting chance isn’t the same as a tossup.

With two polls showing Berg as unpopular, why not rate the race as a tossup?

The simple answer is that race ratings aren’t merely a reflection of the latest polls. They are based on current information and projections of what the race and the political environment will look like as Election Day nears.

The problem for Democrats in North Dakota is that Heitkamp might well be at her strongest before the North Dakota Senate race really engages, so the two early Democratic surveys may be measuring her appeal at its apex, not over the long term.

National and North Dakota Republicans have made no secret of their intention during the campaign to highlight Heitkamp’s enthusiasm for Obama in 2008 and her support for much of his agenda. If Republicans have the kind of material against Heitkamp that they say they do — and assuming that the attacks stick — her personal ratings have nowhere to go but down.

In any case, once the campaign gets under way and North Dakota voters start evaluating the Senate candidates in the context of a campaign (that is, once partisanship becomes a lens through which voters see the race), Heitkamp’s standing is likely to slip.

Democrats note that while North Dakota is often classified as a reliably Republican state, it has gone through periods of electing many Democrats statewide. That is true.

Democrat Byron Dorgan served in Congress from 1980 to 2010, Democrat Earl Pomeroy served in the U.S. House from 1992 to 2010, and retiring Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad has been in the Senate since 1986. Democrats held the state’s governorship from 1961 to the end of 1992, except for a brief four-year period during the early 1980s.

The state Senate had a Democratic majority from the late 1980s into the early 1990s and a majority in the state’s House very briefly in the early 1980s.

But recently, the North Dakota Republican Party has shown its muscle. Eleven of the 12 members of the state’s executive branch are Republicans, with the state superintendent of public instruction (a nonpartisan office on the ballot) being the only Democrat. In the state Legislature, Republicans have an almost 3-to-1 advantage in the state Senate and well over a 2-to-1 advantage in the state House.

And of course, Republicans finally won a Senate seat (when Dorgan retired) and the state’s lone U.S. House seat last cycle when Berg ousted Pomeroy.

So, given North Dakota’s current political bent and Obama’s poor job rating, and even with her initial strength in early polling, Heitkamp must still be regarded as an underdog in the Senate race.

Obviously, if it becomes clear that voters are not convinced by Republican attacks, that Berg’s own standing with voters is so damaged that they are willing to support a Democratic alternative or that Obama’s prospects improve significantly in the next year, my assessment of Heitkamp’s prospects would change.

For now, Heitkamp’s entry into the Senate contest gives Democrats reason for optimism and certainly makes this contest worth watching. But it is far from clear that she can win an open seat in 2012, especially given the parliamentary nature of our recent elections.