United States Senator Mary Kathryn (Heidi) Heitkamp. How About That?

So who gets credit for Heidi’s election?

Cass County gave her almost a ten thousand vote margin. Grand Forks County three thousand. But a lawyer friend of mine who studies elections says it was the turnout on the traditionally Democrat-voting Indian reservations that won her the U.S. Senate seat.  How influential were the reservations in the outcome of Heitkamp’s victory over Rick Berg? Well, the short answer is, her winning margin in the four counties in which the state’s four main reservations are located was 4,352. Heitkamp won the election by 2,994 votes. So my friend could argue, correctly, that it was the Indian vote that provided the margin of victory. But let’s look a little closer.

There were no great surprises in Indian Country. Turnout was actually down from 2008 in two of the counties, Benson and Sioux. Both had about 200 fewer voters in 2012 than in 2008. Rolette County had almost exactly the same number of voters (4548 vs. 4534), but about 500 more people voted in Mountrail County this year as opposed to four years ago. So turnout in reservation counties was actually just about exactly the same in both elections. There was only one major difference in the presidential vote in those four counties: in 2008 Obama carried Mountrail by 71 votes. This year he lost Mountrail by 559 votes. So my guess is those 500 new voters in Mountrail County were off-reservation Republicans (read: oil industry workers). Still, a good number of them voted for Heitkamp. While Obama was losing the county by 559 votes, Heidi was winning the county by 70 votes. You figure THAT out. I can’t.

But even though the Indian vote was important, the reservation voters don’t get ALL the credit for electing a U.S. Senator. Even with a 4,300 vote margin in the reservation counties, in order to win statewide, Heitkamp had to stay within a thousand or so votes of Berg in the rest of the state, so that her margin in Indian Country would put her over the top. No easy task, considering that in the race directly above her on the ballot, the presidential race (the Mountrail County numbers cited above are a microcosm), the Democratic candidate got only 39 per cent of the vote. Heitkamp got about 160,000 votes, and President Barack Obama got about 125,000. So 35,000 people—more than 10 percent of the electorate—voted for Mitt Romney and then went down one notch on the ballot and voted for Heidi Heitkamp. Put another way, one in six of Heitkamp’s voters voted for Mitt Romney. That’s pretty amazing.

And it points out a fatal flaw in Berg’s campaign strategy. He devoted probably 90 per cent of his campaign advertising dollars to painting Heitkamp into President Obama’s corner, saying that the President was bad, which made her bad, and that was the reason not to vote for her. He thought that was good enough to win the election. Problem is, he never got around to telling us what he had accomplished in his lifetime in politics and government. He never gave us a good reason to vote FOR him instead of AGAINST Heitkamp. He should have learned at least three lessons from that.

  1. North Dakotans generally vote for people based on their records, on what they have done, or claim to have done. That’s why politicians like Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad and John Hoeven have never lost a major statewide election. Because they actually did stuff.
  2. North Dakotans aren’t stupid
  3. North Dakotans don’t like to be told what to do.

Rick Berg learned his lesson the hard way. Now, his political career is over and he can go back to making money in the property management business, doing what he says he never did in the past. Hope the learning curve isn’t too hard for him.

And now, perhaps, Berg will recall the e-mail he sent to his fellow North Dakota House Republicans in September of 2008, announcing he was stepping down from the Legislature at the end of his term. Here’s a paragraph from a Bismarck Tribune story:

“Tracy and Jack have been incredibly supportive of my ‘political hobby,’ as have my business partners,” Berg wrote, referring to his wife and son. “But now is the time for me to rebalance my priorities and devote my attention back to my family, my business and my community.”

In media stories that followed, he spoke often of his desire to spend more time with his then-ten-year-old son, saying he didn’t want to miss watching him grow up. A little strange, I thought at the time, since Legislators only spend three months every two years in Bismarck. But then, instead of retiring from politics, he quickly jumped into, and won, the race with Congressman Earl Pomeroy, first racing off to Washington for a two-year Congressional term and then quickly announcing, just a couple months after he got there, he was running for the U.S. Senate. My math says that Jack would have turned 18 back there in Fargo by the end of his dad’s six-year Senate term in Washington. Pretty much grown up by then.

But back to this year’s election. Total turnout was high, the highest it’s been since 1984, the Reagan-Mondale election. About 5,000 more people voted for President this year than voted in 2008. Most of the new voters—at least 4,000 of them—were in Burleigh and Cass Counties. Turnout was up by only about 2,000 in Oil Patch counties, in spite of a massive population influx that some are counting at 50,000. Williams County, for example—Bakken Headquarters—saw an increase of just 300 voters over its 2008 numbers, giving lie to predictions that the new oil workers there were going to turn out en masse and vote for Republicans, giving Berg a new weapon. Berg, in fact, ran lots of radio spots out west urging oil workers to vote, and to vote for him. Never happened. Mountrail, McKenzie, Burke, Divide and Dunn Counties all had a few hundred more voters this year than in past years. Heitkamp lost most of them, but outpolled Obama by hundreds of votes in every Oil Patch county.

So who gets the credit for Heidi’s win? The woman herself. She ran the best campaign the state has ever seen. And her staff, particularly manager Tessa Gould and communications director Gail Hand. And a young fellow named Ryan Nagle, who ran the party’s get out the vote effort, and was at least partly responsible for the state’s record turnout for a general election. And finally, the voters of North Dakota, choosing wisely—although Heidi was quick to point out that 50.5 per cent doesn’t give her a mandate. She probably will work with both Democrats and Republicans in Washington. That’s okay with me, if she’d just get off this Keystone Pipeline kick . . . But the bottom line is, Heidi ran a great campaign. Rick Berg didn’t. Often, that makes a difference.


A Costly Election

Looking at FEC reports, it looks like Heitkamp and Berg will have spent a combined $10 million on the campaign. Super PACs probably added another $5 million or so. Berg outraised Heitkamp by about a million and a  half dollars.. Both pretty amazing figures. In their last disclosure reports, filed October 17, Berg reported he had raised $5.8 million and spent $4.6 million, with about $1.2 million still in the bank (presumably seed money for his re-election effort in 6 years). Heitkamp reported raising about $4.4 million and spending just over $4 million, with $350,000 still in the bank. We’ll have to wait until they file their end-of-the-year reports to see if they spent the cash in the bank between October 17 and Election Day.

Sore losers

Conservative pundits don’t give up easily. Instead of giving the American Public credit for wise choices, and giving President Obama credit for a great campaign, they’re the same old whiners they were last week. They say Obama’s still wrong, he’s still a bad person, his policies are still very bad, but the Republican Party and its weak candidate, Mitt Romney, didn’t do a good enough job of telling the American people that, so he got re-elected. And besides, Chris Christie, selfishly looking out for just the people of his state instead of the entire country after the big storm, sold us out.

Send Money

I started getting the profusion of fundraising e-mails from Heidi Heitkamp, Pam Gulleson and the Democratic Party right after the June Primary, so I kept track of them. Between June 6 and Election Day, I got 42 e-mails from Heidi or her supporters asking me to send money to her campaign. I got 26 from Pam Gulleson. I got more than 75 from Barack Obama and the national Democratic Party. I prefer to be asked personally to give money, not in an impersonal electronic message. I mostly ignored them after a while, but for a short time I read them, and since I know something about fundraising appeals, I kind of kept track of the good ones and the bad ones. Only one stands out in my mind—as the worst pitch for money ever. It was from Gulleson, and it read:

Subject: My car broke down.


Dear James, 

            It’s been quite a day. I got to visit with folks in Dickinson and enjoyed the Roughrider Parade. But after a long day of fun and sun, my trusty campaign car broke down just outside of Dickinson!

            I love to travel this great state and meet North Dakotans, and it’s essential in a campaign like this.

            Can you give $25 right now to get me back on the road?

            Thanks for standing by me – I couldn’t do it without you! And I hope to be back on the road and driving to a town near you sometime soon.

            If 80 people give just $25 that’ll pay for the repairs. And don’t forget – our fundraising deadline ends tonight at midnight!




So I’ve just got until midnight to send you some money so you can get your car fixed? Y’know, I’ve met panhandlers with better lines than that. I’m sorry, Pam, but asking supporters to pay for fixing your car goes beyond the pale. I gave you a little money to help pay for TV ads earlier, but I think keeping your car running is probably your own responsibility.

Bye, Bye, Turdblossom?      

Here’s something I take great delight in. Karl Rove’s super PAC, American Crossroads, spent $180 million—you read that right, a hundred and eighty million dollars—of other people’s money, on attack ads against President Obama, and another $76 million on ads attacking Democratic U.S. Senate candidates, including Heidi Heitkamp. Obama won, as did 5 of the 7 Senate candidates Rove spent money against. Maybe we’ve finally seen the last of Karl Rove now. Maybe people will finally stop giving him money. Or maybe not.

Is Pomeroy Smiling? 

You might expect that one of the biggest smiles in Washington this week is on Earl Pomeroy’s face, after watching Heidi take out the guy who beat him in 2010 after just one term in office. Might be a bit of a wistful smile, though. If things had gone a little differently two years ago, Earl could be Senator-Elect Pomeroy today. Think about that. You might also have thought that this year,  Pomeroy, now a lobbyist with the K Street firm of Alston & Bird, would have been one of the biggest donors to Heitkamp’s campaign. Not so. FEC reports show Pomeroy gave just $1,000 to Heitkamp, and his former chief of staff, Bob Siggins, now also an employee of Alston & Bird, gave just $500. Considering how important it was for Heitkamp to keep up with Berg in the financial arena, that’s surprising. Alston & Bird’s political action committee (Alston & Bird PAC) contributed about $250,000 to candidates for the U.S. House and Senate this year. There were 33 U.S. Senate races this year. The PAC made contributions to 28 Senators or Senate candidates. Heitkamp’s name was conspicuously absent from the list. Go figure. A side note: Just to show you how lobbying firm PACs work, in the House, where Republicans hold the majority, the Alston& Bird PAC gave $101,000 to Republicans and $36,000 to Democrats. But in the Senate, where Democrats hold sway, they gave $86,500 to Democrats and $16,500 to Republicans. That, I am guessing, is typical of Washington lobbying firm PACs. And we wonder why incumbents so rarely lose office. Doesn’t all this just make you gag little bit?

Who Owns North Dakota?

Just today, more than two weeks after North Dakota candidates up for election filed their campaign disclosure reports, listing the donors to their campaign, Governor Jack Dalrymple’s list of donors showed up on the Secretary of State’s website. I had been wondering why it took so long, so I asked the Secretary of State’s office the other day why the reports from Dalrymple and his opponent, Ryan Taylor, were the only ones not on the website. Al Jaeger’s staff replied that Dalrymple’s was very long, more than 60 pages, and it was taking them a long time to type it into the computer database. Uh huh. That would have been about 4 pages per day. Or just maybe someone did not want voters to see how many checks he got from oil company executives until the election was over. That list is long. I’m going through it today and will add something to this report when I get through it. The Secretary of State’s office said they had some questions about Taylor’s report that they were still trying to get answers to. It was not on the website as of 11 a.m. today (I doubt it will be 60 pages). Dalrymple’s report showed he raised $1.4 million from May 15 through October 25. There were 920 donors who gave reportable contributions of more than $200. Those gifts totaled about $1.3 million, an average of about $1,500. Not bad for a small time governor in a small state.

The Future for Dorgan and Conrad

Politico this week reports that the Obama administration  is looking for a role for soon-to-be -former Senator Kent Conrad in the administration. And they mention Dorgan’s name as a possibility for a cabinet post in Obama’s second term. Stay tuned.

MTK. (My old-school journalism friends will know what that means.)

11 thoughts on “United States Senator Mary Kathryn (Heidi) Heitkamp. How About That?

  1. Wow — the election is over, Jim. A little hard on my old buddy, Rick, don’t you think? Especially by questioning his desire, at a specific point in time, to be more available to his son. Perhaps you need to go back and do some more hunting and fishing. Seriously, after nearly 20 years in Minnesota, I still tell my friends here (most of whom are Democrats, by the way) that we need to learn lessons from our neighbors in NoDak. North Dakota politicians beat the crap out of each other during campaigns just like everyone else. But, somehow, they tend to respect their opponents just a little more after the fact. I’ve always thought it was primarily because they actually KNEW their opponents. That is the way I’ve felt about you for nearly 30 years. I often disagreed with your views, but always knew your heart was in the right place. Because I knew that, it was easier for me to accept your views on other things and, thus, we found common ground when we could. I have no doubt Rick Berg wanted to spend more time with his son and also serve North Dakota. And I bet he was terribly conflicted about it all along. Why? Because he is a good person with solid North Dakota roots — just like Heidi. Perhaps he ran a lousy campaign. I couldn’t see it very well from where I am. And perhaps his politics have gotten even further to the right than in the past — no great surprise there, not in this era. But come on, Jim. It is time for an olive branch, not a baseball bat. It is the North Dakota way. At least let me go back to my dream of a “kindler, gentler Dakota.” Oh well, at least you took a shot at Pam too. I’ll give you that…


    1. Well, this is the first time I mentioned Rick during this campaign, I think. Just had to get a couple things off my chest. Rick and I grew up together, kind of. He lived up the street from me. Dated one of my sisters, I think. I like him. He used to like me. I wish him well in whatever he does next.


      1. And that, my friend, says it all. We know each other. It is a good thing in the end. Minnesota has one of the strictest anti-lobbying laws in the nation. Legislators essentially can’t get anything of value from a lobbyist. It all sounds good. Ah, but then the law of unintended consequences. Legislators here no longer go to the social functions that historically were the source of a “free” meal and a little downtime. Back in the day (whether in Minnesota or North Dakota), people would argue all day then go to the rubber chicken dinner de jure — could be the Farm Bureau or the Farmers Union. It didn’t really matter. But you would get to know (and often like) the person you were bashing during the day’s debate. I hope it still works that way at the North Dakota Capitol. Cheers…


  2. Time to move on and work at bringing people together. I’m a moderate who votes for people on both sides of the aisle. I voted for Heidi because I always think it is good to have balance in the system, whether it be in Bismarck or in Washington. I also voted for her because I really thought her moderate message would help her be a person to find common ground between the parties. I just hope she is that person to stand up to Harry Reid when he is wrong, especially on this limiting the filibuster privilege. If politicans haven’t learned anything from the past elections. than they really are not that bright. If Heidi isn’t that moderate like she said she was, North Dakotans will vote her out in 6 years. With all the mudslinging that went on, I would like to give props to Rick Berg for his long record of public service. It is easy to criticize people in the spotlight, but it takes a special person to step out on a limb and be a lightning rod at times for a party. Rick is a very bright guy and a lot more successful than most anyone in this state will ever be. This state will be lucky if we get more intelligent and hard working men and women like Rick to run for office of any level. Another great post Jim.


    1. The filibuster has been abused beyond anything in the history of the country the past 4 years by Senate Republicans. There is no reason to need 60 votes to pass legislation, appoint judges, etc. on a routine basis.

      I doubt the Senate Democrats want to do away with the filibuster entirely, but it can’t continue to be a routine way of blocking things that have majority support. It’s totally undemocratic. It needs to be changed.


  3. Good job Jim.
    The slum landlord thing at first seemed to be over the top until I began hearing from young adults who had very negative experiences with Goldmark apartments. Part of every tale included the universal forfeiture of the $400 security deposit. That is a huge sum to a young adult living on Ramen noodles for the last week before payday. It usually meant having to find another couple hundred bucks for their next security deposit. Its a bad taste that lingers on for the rest of their lives.

    2nd- What is with the highly unusual East Blue- Red West county map? I can’t recall seeing such a uniform contrast.


    1. I just would like to say that in defense of Goldmark, I am a member of the Bismarck Mandan Renters Association help manage 16 apartments with the owner in Bismarck. The apartments are always spotless when people move in , we go thru a check in sheet. We list any defects in the apartment along with the tennant and they sign a sheet and lease stating they will not paint alter the apartment in anyway and that it will be clean when they move out. We hire a proffessional to clean the apartments after they move out and it is deducted from the deposit. We remind them of this when they give their notice. they need to leave the apartment in the same shape as when they moved in. You would not beleive the messes we have from people that think they deserve their deposit back. They punch holes in the walls, paint horrible colors slop paint all over the woodwork leave the place filthy and think they should get their money back. In the 16 years of renting and to all walks of life we have had very very few who actually take care of the place and who deserve their money back. As a landlord you have no rights. We have had to replace carpet that was a year old. They have had everything fron Iguanas to small horses in their apartments. You can take them to court but they care not if you get a judgement against them or not. Their are some good renters but the ones you speak of that eat Ramon noodles leave their Ramon noodle boxes all over the house and their personal crap with it. I am not a Rick fan totally but the fact Heidi kept using that as a excuss was a reason I did not vote for her. You do not know the circumstances until you walk in their shoes. Renters Most of them do not regard other peoples property as a thing of value.


  4. Having written a piece at Daily Kos on the effect of the Indian vote—American Indian voters and Indian organizers gave N.D. Senate edge to Democrat Heidi Heitkamp—I found your piece here interesting.

    You’re right, of course. Obviously, those few thousand Indian votes are a drop in the bucket compared with all the other votes Heitkamp had to get. So, in that sense, Indians didn’t give the Senator-elect her victory. But making such assessments about margins, etc., is a time-honored practice. When the vote in the U.S. Senate is held back by a filibuster with, say, the 41st vote coming from Joe Lieberman, we put the onus on him rather than the other 40. In fact, Lieberman only enables the filibuster, he obviously isn’t totally to blame.

    As for ethnic groups being decisive nationwide, it’s true that without the African American and Latino vote, Barack Obama would be out of job come Jan. 21. The white male vote went against him. But if he’d just had blacks and Latinos voting for him and didn’t get the 38 percent or so of white male voters he got, he would have lost. But we don’t say that the white male vote was decisive. That’s because its percentage was skewed for Romney.

    In North Dakota, I don’t think that, except for Mountrail County, you’ll see the 4.5-1 skewing among any other demographics as you do in the Indian-dominant counties of Rollette and Sioux.

    Drilling down to the precinct level would, I suspect, make the difference between Indians and non-Indians even starker. Separating out those oil-field workers in Mountrail if that could be done by precinct, would tell us two things:

    Was the Indian vote in 2012 about equal to 2008 or was it white voters in those counties (as it was in other parts of the nation) who stayed away? Obviously, that’s a hard argument to make in 85% Indian Sioux County. But in Rollette, the Indian populaton is 73%. And in Benson, 48%. It would be useful to get a better sense of whether approximately the same number of Indians and non-Indians voted in those counties in both 2008 and 2012 or if more Indians did and fewer whites did. THEN we would know whether the effort to get more Indians to polls had an effect or not and strengthen or weaken the claim your lawyer friend and I make that it was the Indian vote that carried Heitkamp over the top.

    I like your blog, by the way.


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