In an upset victory, Democrat Heidi Heitkamp has been declared the winner in her contest with Republican Rep. Rick Berg for the open North Dakota Senate seat being vacated by retiring Democrat Kent Conrad.
Berg conceded Tuesday afternoon after one of the season's closest Senate contests. Only about 3,000 votes seperated his total from from Heitkamp's, out of more than 315,000 cast. Her victory expands the Democratic majority to 53, compared to 45 Republicans and two independents.
Republicans initially considered the race an easy pickup, making Heitkamp's likely win all the more surprising. The matchup between the former state attorney general, and Berg, a first-term congressman, was considered a toss-up by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Cognizant of running against the grain in red-shaded North Dakota, Heitkamp campaigned as a centrist and distanced herself from President Obama on issues important to the state's economy, including energy and farming. Berg ran on a traditional GOP platform and Republican interest groups targeted Heitkamp when her views aligned with Obama’s, most notably her support for the president's health care law.
Heitkamp overcame big political hurdles in a state that went solidly for GOP nominee Mitt Romney. Polling throughout the cycle showed Heitkamp and Berg neck-and-neck, which Democrats mostly attributed to a remarkably well-run campaign and a likeable candidate in Heitkamp.
When what was once considered a GOP slam-dunk turned competitive, national groups took note. Just a few days before the election, Romney made an ad supporting Berg and President Clinton, Obama's high-profile surrogate, stumped for Heitkamp.
Buoyed by energy and GOP interests, Berg had more money bankrolling his campaign than Heitkamp. As of Oct. 17, Berg had raised almost $6 million compared to Heitkamp’s $3.7 million, according to Center for Responsive Politics. He also entered the homestretch with almost double her cash-on-hand total: $1.2 million to Heitkamp’s $618,411.
Berg’s campaign was mostly fueled by oil and gas interests. Berg has promised the industry he would help ensure alleged onerous federal regulations don’t dampen the boom of unconventional oil production in the western part of the state. Donating more than $400,000 to his campaign, the industry outpaced all other sectors. Thanks in large part to the oil boom, the state has the country’s lowest unemployment rate at 3 percent.
Heitkamp’s top industry was the legal profession, including the firms of Motley Rice (whose practice includes environmental issues) and Weitz & Luxenberg. The sector donated almost $280,000. Like Berg, Heitkamp received a hefty pile of money from leadership PACs—more than $250,000.
Heitkamp's victory is now addded to a longer-than-expected list of Democratic wins in the upper chamber. Among competitive races, consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren beat Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts; Rep. Chris Murphy bested Linda McMahon in Connecticut for retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman’s seat; and Indiana Rep. Joe Donnelly upset state Treasurer Richard Mourdock for the seat of retiring Sen. Richard Lugar.
The Berg campaign had said early Tuesday morning the candidate would not comment or make any announcements--concession or otherwise—until the state conducted an official canvassing process, which had been set to begin on Friday.