A small state with a big voice

MINOT, N.D. — "No! No! No!" cried Heidi Heitkamp. She's the Democratic senatorial candidate in North Dakota. I had just asked her whether residents of her state think it's unfair that, in the Senate, each North Dakota voter has the clout of approximately 50 Californians.

She doesn't.

That was the top thing I had always wondered about the politics of North Dakota, whose two U.S. senators serve a population of around 680,000. (Campaign-wise, it resembles the Iowa caucuses. Voters expect to have met the candidates personally. Sometimes they seem to expect the candidates to invite them home for dinner.)

I was wandering around the state last week, mulling its Senate race. Really, we can't possibly focus on Barack Obama and Mitt Romney for another three months without an occasional reprieve.

So, North Dakota. Heitkamp, a former attorney general, is running against Rep. Rick Berg, the state's sole member of the House. In the beginning, the national Democrats wrote this one off as a long shot at best, but Heitkamp seems to have, at minimum, pulled even. On the campaign trail, she's a happy warrior with the endless energy you'd need if you were running for office in a state where there's a two-hour drive between even the smaller clumps of voters. She also has a dramatic story that centers on the year 2000, when she ran for governor and was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer, but she stayed in the race, campaigning even while she had chemotherapy and her trademark red hair fell out. She lost but seems to have made an indelible imprint on the public.


(The other happy Senate surprise for the Democrats is Arizona, where the party somehow came up with a Hispanic physician who is a disabled Vietnam veteran and former surgeon general for the Bush administration, as well as the hero of several dramatic rescues, during one of which he shot a deranged suspected murderer. I believe I speak for all the political hopefuls in America when I say that the bar for a potential upset win is being set unacceptably high.)

As soon as the North Dakota Senate race began, Republican super PACs began beating Heitkamp with the health care mallet. "Heidi endorsed Obamacare," says one much-aired ad that features a very brief tape of Heitkamp saying, with no apparent enthusiasm, "It actually is a budget saver." In response, she almost always brings the discussion back to her own story. Her next ad began with Heitkamp discussing her bout with cancer and adding, "When you live through that, political attack ads seem silly."

''I have a pretty well-known pre-existing condition," she says dryly.

My second big North Dakota question was why, if the voters were really obsessed about the economy and jobs, jobs, jobs, the state wasn't tilting toward Obama. True, North Dakota hasn't gone for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson. But things are great! The unemployment rate is around 3 percent and close to zero in the areas around the booming oil industry. The farmers weren't hit by the drought, and their crops are going to be worth a fortune at harvest time.

Much of this good news occurred on the president's watch. Does he get credit? The answer, once again, is no. No. No.

''If Heidi is elected, I won't lose sleep. She'll do a great job," said E. Ward Koeser, the mayor of the oil-boom town of Williston, a Republican who has endorsed Berg. "If Barack Obama gets elected, I'll lose sleep."

''Leadership means you take people who are polarized and get them together. I don't think he was that good at building relations," said Heitkamp, trying to explain her state's antipathy toward Obama. "When people are mad at me, I always try to stand next to them for 20 minutes. They can't stay mad."

We will not try to envision the president using that tactic on John Boehner. But Heitkamp says she'll be voting for Obama in November — because Mitt Romney supports the House Republican budget.


''People ask me why, and I point to that budget," she says.

In 2010, North Dakota voters were furious about the national debt and the horrors they'd heard about Obamacare, and they tossed out virtually every Democratic incumbent they could get their hands on. Now Heitkamp is betting that the House budget, with its Medicare restructuring and dramatic program cuts will seem even more radical to the emotionally conservative North Dakotans than the stimulus or health care law. "There's $180 billion in farm cuts in there," she said, launching into a litany of the government aid it would strip away from North Dakota.

Berg says the House budget is thrifty and represents the "North Dakota way of doing things." We shall see. It's up to the North Dakota voters. A very small number of North Dakota voters.

Eat your heart out, California.

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