Top N.D. Dems skip national convention

FARGO  – Democrats absent from this week’s national convention in Charlotte, N.C., aren’t going unnoticed.

For North Dakota, none of the top-ticket Democrats is among the state’s 27 delegates at the convention.

It’s similar across the country, where a slew of prominent party leaders and Democratic candidates have opted out of this week’s ceremonial festivities during which President Barack Obama will accept his party’s nomination for re-election.

Retiring U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad is the political figurehead of the North Dakota delegation, which otherwise includes a few state legislators, some legislative hopefuls and other party backers.

U.S. Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp, U.S. House candidate Pam Gulleson and gubernatorial candidate Ryan Taylor have all cited campaign obligations as their reasons for forgoing the DNC this year.

Heidi Heitkamp

Heitkamp has gotten the most attention, though, since she praised Obama at the 2008 DNC and Republicans are eager this year to cast her as a Democratic ally.

Heitkamp first said in June she wouldn’t be attending the DNC, and her campaign reaffirmed her reasons Tuesday.

“Heidi made the decision months ago not to attend the DNC because she has always felt that it is more important for her to stay in North Dakota and talk to the voters in this state about the issues that concern them,” spokesman Liam Forsythe said.

Forsythe said Heitkamp’s schedule this week includes meetings with legislators, multiple media appearances, the UTTC International PowWow and her first of three debates against Republican Rep. Rick Berg, which is today in Bismarck.

Republicans argue Heitkamp’s absence at the DNC is a disingenuous attempt to appear independent from the national party.

“Regardless of what Heitkamp says, she is just like national Democrats,” said Lance Trover, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “Heidi Heitkamp not attending the DNC doesn’t mean she’s not supporting Barack Obama’s way of big government.”

Heitkamp isn’t the only major candidate who previously campaigned for Obama but is now deciding not to back him in person at the DNC.

Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, Montana Sen. Jon Tester and Arizona Senate candidate Richard Carmona are also staying in their home states this week to campaign in their own races.

Like Heitkamp, both Gulleson’s and Taylor’s campaigns said busy schedules and meetings with North Dakota voters are keeping them at home this week.

Along with the U.S. Senate debate today, North Dakota’s U.S. House and gubernatorial candidates will also debate in Bismarck.

Gulleson faces Republican U.S. House candidate Kevin Cramer, while Taylor will take on Republican incumbent Gov. Jack Dalrymple.

Berg and Dalrymple represented North Dakota at the Republican National Convention last week in Tampa, Fla.

Pam Gulleson

Earlier this summer, Gulleson spokeswoman Hillary Price said attending the DNC was “never in the plans.”

“Pam is focused on meeting with as many North Dakotans as possible and doing events in the state,” Price said Tuesday.

Taylor campaign manager Libby Schneider said: “Ryan didn’t get into this race to go on out of state trips or because he likes politics; he got into this race for governor because he loves North Dakota.”

“North Dakota is where Ryan chooses to spend his time, and this is where he wants to be,” she said.

Minnesota Public Radio reported Tuesday that Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar will be in Charlotte this week, but among those notably absent from Minnesota’s DNC delegation is Rep. Collin Peterson, who represents the 7th Congressional District.

Nationally, other top Democrats who aren’t attending the convention this week include former Vice President Al Gore and 2008 presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, according to ABC News.

As secretary of state, federal law prohibits Clinton from participating in political activities.

SPECIAL REPORT: Labor has small impact on ND political scene

FARGO – Labor unions aren’t as prominent in North Dakota as they are in other states, but that doesn’t stop such groups from trying to put even a small stamp of influence on the political map here.

Since the start of the 2012 campaign – which is on track to be the most expensive in North Dakota’s history – labor unions make up about 3 percent of the financial donations the state’s top-ticket candidates have received so far.

A Forum analysis of campaign finance records revealed labor unions contributed $292,000 toward North Dakota’s U.S. House, U.S. Senate and gubernatorial candidates, as of June 30. All but $2,500 of that went to Democrats, which is consistent with the national trend.

Nationwide, unions have given $38.2 million to federal candidates so far this election cycle. Of that, 89 percent went to Democrats, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

The money going to North Dakota’s federal candidates amounts to less than 1 percent of unions’ contributions nationwide, exemplifying Big Labor’s comparatively minimal political influence here.

Twenty-three states, including North Dakota, have “right to work” laws, which give workers the freedom to choose whether they join a union. Consequently, that means “a very small percentage of workers in the state belong to unions, or even have the option of belonging to a union,” said Kjersten Nelson, an assistant political science professor at North Dakota State University.

“In general, labor unions have less influence here than in other states,” Nelson said. “Still, unions in the state endorse candidates and donate money. … While the donations are relatively small by national standards, they are not insignificant for some candidates.”

Pam Gulleson

For instance, donations from labor unions account for 17 percent of the $630,000 Democratic House candidate Pam Gulleson raised so far, the most proportionally among North Dakota candidates in the 2012 races.

Campaign finance records show she’s taken in about $107,500 from labor unions since last fall, a figure that also represents about 48 percent of her donations from political action committees.

“Pam has always been a strong supporter of working people,” campaign spokeswoman Hillary Price said. “She’s worked really hard to make sure that workers get a fair shake,” while also encouraging cooperation between unions and management.

Price added that labor unions’ influence in North Dakota “is not the same kind of influence that, say, the oil industry has.”

“They don’t have billions of dollars to spend, and they’re not a huge political force in North Dakota,” she said.

In a similar analysis earlier this summer, The Forum highlighted the substantial campaign donations employees and businesses in the oil and gas industry have given to North Dakota candidates this year.

That data showed Republicans received the lion’s share of oil money, and the donations also represented significant proportions of each Republican candidates’ campaign income.

Kevin Cramer

In an interview for that story, Republican House candidate Kevin Cramer said the oil industry’s donations to Republicans are no different than labor unions’ contributions to Democrats.

“Everybody has an interest and that interest is represented by a philosophy,” Cramer said. “I have access to all the labor union money, too, but they might not support me.”

Cramer hasn’t received any money from unions. Rather, he’s been endorsed by several pro-business associations who’ve also contributed to his campaign coffers.

In pure dollars, Democratic Senate hopeful Heidi Heitkamp has received the most money from unions, amounting to $160,000 so far, The Forum’s analysis showed.

However, the proportional significance of the labor money isn’t as great as Heitkamp’s other, more sizable, sources of income.

Heidi Heitkamp

Labor unions account for 7.5 percent of the $2.1 million Heitkamp has raised since last fall and, more specifically, about 31 percent of her PAC money.

Proportionally, that’s less than what Heitkamp has received from trial lawyers – who have given about $284,000 – and political PACs – who’ve donated about $302,000, according to campaign finance data compiled by The Forum and the Center for Responsive Politics.

Spokesman Liam Forsythe contrasted Heitkamp’s support for middle-class workers with the personal wealth of her opponent, Republican Rep. Rick Berg, who The Hill recently reported is the 15th richest member of Congress.

“Our campaign has received more than 10,000 contributions from people who are concerned that Rick Berg went to Washington to vote the party line and hasn’t gone to work for North Dakota,” Forsythe said. “We’re happy to be supported by thousands of middle-class North Dakotans who believe in Heidi’s message.”

Rick Berg

Berg campaign spokesman Chris Van Guilder said Heidi’s labor money shows that electing her would “secure another rubber stamp” for national Democrats’ agenda.

“Whether it’s unions, Harry Reid, anti-energy trial attorneys, or anyone from the long list of national liberals supporting her campaign, it’s clear that President Obama and his allies will continue to support Heidi Heitkamp,” Van Guilder said.

However, Berg has the designation of being the only North Dakota Republican among the federal and gubernatorial candidates to receive union money during this campaign.

FEC records show Berg’s campaign accepted a $2,500 contribution from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, a labor union with ties to the AFL-CIO. The group also gave $1,150 to Heitkamp.

That single donation is overshadowed, though, by Berg’s wide support from trade associations and pro-business groups, often the political opponent of unions.

The Forum found Berg has received $327,900 from such trade associations, which represents about 8 percent of the $4.1 million he’s raised for his campaign and about 28 percent of his PAC contributions.



Running for U.S. Senate

Total raised, as of June 30: $2.1 million
Contributions from labor unions: $160,000

Top contributors:

  • American Federation of Teachers: $10,000
  • American Postal Workers Union: $10,000
  • United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners: $10,000
  • United Food & Commercial Workers International Union: $10,000
  • International Association of Firefighters: $10,000


Running for U.S. House

Total raised, as of June 30: $630,000
Contributions from labor unions: $70,300

Top contributors:

  • Engineers Political Education Committee and the International Union of Operating Engineers: $10,000
  • International Association of Firefighters: $10,000
  • International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers: $10,000
  • United Association: $7,500
  • American Federation of Teachers: $5,000


Running for governor

Total raised, as of June 30: $313,000
Contributions from labor unions: $22,000

Top contributors:

  • United Transportation PAC: $6,000
  • International Brotherhood Of Electrical Workers: $5,000
  • United Association: $5,000
  • Sheet Metal Workers International Association: $2,5000
  • United Steelworkers: $2,000


Running for U.S. Senate

Total raised, as of June 30: $4.1 million

Contributions from labor unions: $2,500 (from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association)


* Republicans Gov. Jack Dalrymple and U.S. House candidate Kevin Cramer have not received any contributions from labor unions, as of June 30.

Debate plan set: Berg, Heitkamp to face off three times

Rick Berg

FARGO – North Dakota’s U.S. Senate candidates will have three – and only three – debates before Election Day.

Republican Rep. Rick Berg’s campaign revealed his final debate schedule to The Forum on Thursday, confirming three joint appearances with Democrat Heidi Heitkamp.

Berg’s schedule falls short of Heitkamp’s expectations for at least seven chances to go toe-to-toe with her opponent, but Berg spokesman Chris Van Guilder said the three debates should provide ample opportunity for the public to see the differences between the two candidates.

Heidi Heitkamp

“We’re looking forward to these three debates,” Van Guilder said. “They’ll be open, public and accessible to people across North Dakota.”

The three debates will be hosted by the North Dakota Broadcasters AssociationPrairie Public TV and a partnership of Dakota Media Access, The Bismarck Tribune and the League of Women Voters.

The first event is next week in Bismarck, while the other two are set for later in October.

Heitkamp’s campaign expressed disappointment at Berg’s decision to commit to no more than three debates.

“It’s really sad that Washington could change Congressman Berg so quickly, because two years ago he was clamoring for the opportunity to debate,” Heitkamp spokesman Liam Forsythe said, referring to the 2010 U.S. House race when Berg and Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy both pressed for more debates while accusing each other of dodging them.

Van Guilder said the three agreed-upon events appealed to Berg because they come “without any type of partisan or special-interest affiliation.”

Since June, Heitkamp’s campaign has pressured Berg to commit to multiple debates, citing the need for the candidates to discuss the “critical issues” facing North Dakota and the country, such as the pending farm bill.

Heitkamp had accepted invitations for four other proposed debates, including ones sponsored by the Lignite Energy Council and Fargo-based KFGO radio.

Heitkamp’s brother, Joel, is a talk-show host on KFGO and Heitkamp herself has been previously featured as an occasional on-air personality for the station.

The Lignite Energy Council has donated $5,000 to both Heitkamp and Berg, and the pro-coal lobbying group also held separate fundraisers this spring to benefit both candidates.

Debate details

North Dakota’s U.S. Senate candidates – Republican Rep. Rick Berg and Democrat Heidi Heitkamp – plan to have three joint appearances before Election Day:

  • a taped debate with Prairie Public TV, which will air at 9 p.m. Oct. 15. The event will be record-ed that afternoon at Prairie Public’s Fargo studio.
– compiled by Forum reporter Kristen Daum

National GOP reserves $3 million in ad time for N.D. Senate race

Rick Berg

FARGO – In part because of the flap over a Missouri Senate candidate’s comments about “legitimate rape,” national Republicans are directing more money to North Dakota – bringing millions of dollars more in TV commercials to the state’s close Senate race.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has booked $3.1 million in TV ad time between now and Election Day to boost the campaign of Republican Rep. Rick Berg, Politico reported this week.

The ad buy surpasses what national Democrats have reserved so far in the state and further exemplifies the intense spotlight on North Dakota’s high-stakes campaign.

Heidi Heitkamp

Democrat Heidi Heitkamp’s campaign quickly sought to cast the NRSC’s move as a sign that Republicans want to save Berg’s “struggling campaign.”

“Rick Berg’s Washington friends just hit a very expensive panic button, because they know he can’t win over North Dakotans with his history of voting the party line,” Heitkamp campaign manager Tessa Gould said Wednesday.

Berg’s campaign spokesman Chris Van Guilder pointed out that national Democrats previously pledged at least $2.8 million in airtime to back Heitkamp this fall.

“The stakes in this election are high, as North Dakotans will choose between two very different paths – either continuing with President Obama’s agenda, as supported by Heidi Heitkamp … or electing Rick Berg, who will work with Senator (John) Hoeven to change course and make Washington work more like North Dakota,” Van Guilder said.

He did not offer comment specifically on the NRSC’s investment in the race.

Politico said the NRSC’s dollars became available after national party leaders decided to pull their resources out of two races:  New Mexico, where there’s a seemingly losing battle for Republicans, and Missouri, where the GOP has cut its ties to Rep. Todd Akin he said earlier this month women’s bodies can prevent pregnancies in cases of “legitimate rape.”

The Senate race in North Dakota was once believed to be an easy win for Berg, but many analysts now peg the race as a toss-up.

Given the Berg-Heitkamp race is considered one of a handful that could decide partisan power in the U.S. Senate next year, the money that national parties are dumping into North Dakota’s Senate contest is only part of the picture.

Voters will also likely be bombarded this fall by TV ads from both Heitkamp’s and Berg’s campaigns, which have millions to spend before Election Day. And several partisan groups – like the conservative Crossroads GPS or the liberal Majority PAC – are also investing millions into attack ads.

NDGOP delegates agree to ‘vote their conscience’

FARGO – When the GOP’s presidential candidate is nominated this week, North Dakota delegates at the Republican National Convention in Tampa have the option to cast their ballots for someone other than Mitt Romney.

The North Dakota Republican Party said in a statement Monday that the state’s 28 delegates had gathered in Florida and agreed to “vote their conscience” rather than be required to automatically support Romney, the GOP’s presumptive nominee.

Romney is slated to accept the presidential nomination in a primetime address Thursday night.

The decision by North Dakota’s delegates aims to comply with the state party’s bylaws, while also attempting to ease concerns of some party supporters who felt disenfranchised this spring by the state party’s delegate selection process.

The NDGOP’s rules require national delegates to caucus before the convention “to discuss voluntarily apportioning delegate representation on the first ballot to reflect the results of the presidential caucus. … The delegates remain free to vote their conscience on all balloting.”

During the state caucus in early March, Rick Santorum handily came in first. Ron Paul took second, Romney third and Newt Gingrich a distant fourth.

At the state convention in April, the NDGOP’s recommended slate of delegates drew fire from the conservative right, who alleged the mostly pro-Romney group didn’t accurately reflect the results of the state’s presidential caucus.

Gingrich and Santorum – who have since ended their campaigns – recently released the delegates they won during the nomination process, which frees those delegates to nominate whomever they chose.

Paul, a libertarian with a devout following, is still formally in the race, but he’ll likely end his bid in Tampa this week.

Berg, Pawlenty still slated to address RNC this week

Rick Berg

FARGO – Despite Mother Nature forcing last-minute schedule changes, politicians from North Dakota and Minnesota will still have their time in the spotlight at the Republican National Convention this week in Tampa, Fla.

North Dakota Republican Senate candidate and current Rep. Rick Berg is scheduled to address the GOP delegates at around 2 p.m. Tuesday, Berg’s campaign said.

Berg was supposed to speak today, but national GOP organizers canceled the first day of events at the convention, fearing impacts from Tropical Storm Isaac, which is now targeting Louisiana and the Gulf Coast.

In a revised schedule released Sunday evening by the RNC, Berg was not listed as a convention speaker, but Berg’s campaign confirmed Monday morning that his speech would still take place.

Berg plans to talk about North Dakota’s economic success.

Meanwhile, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has kept his primetime slot on Wednesday evening.

Pawlenty is scheduled to address the RNC at around 9 p.m., about an hour before vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan takes the stage.

FORUM FACT-CHECK: Democrats’ super PAC slams Berg on Social Security

FARGO – A Democratic super PAC claims Republican Rep. Rick Berg is a threat to senior citizens’ retirement programs in a new ad released this week.

Majority PAC‘s attack against Berg is part of a $1.6 million ad buy that targets several GOP Senate candidates in toss-up races nationwide.

The group’s goal is to keep the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate. As a super PAC, it can raise and spend unlimited funds.

Majority PAC has released several anti-Berg ads this summer, costing $654,000 in all. Each of the ads targets his record on Medicare and claims he’s “gone Washington.”

Democratic claims over Berg’s Medicare votes have been addressed in previous “Forum Fact-Checks,” but this new ad brings another issue into the fold: privatizing Social Security.

Narrator: “Rick Berg’s a sly one – claims he never voted to cut Medicare, but the congressional record proves he already has. Twice.”

Rick Berg

After several attacks by Democratic groups, like Majority PAC and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Berg released a response ad in July in which his mom, Francie, defends Berg’s voting record.

In the campaign ad, Francie Berg says her son “would never do anything to harm Social Security or Medicare.”

In both 2011 and 2012, Berg voted in favor of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s federal budget proposals, which included significant reforms and spending cuts to entitlement programs, as well as a host of other federal departments and programs.

Overhauling Medicare as Ryan – now the GOP vice presidential candidate – would have included budget cuts to the program worth billions of dollars for both fiscal years 2012 and 2013. The proposals were never enacted.

Meanwhile, Berg has continuously criticized the 2010 health care reform law for its cuts to Medicare, which will come through similar cost-savings reforms.

Narrator: “Now, Rick’s trying to hide his plan to privatize Social Security.”

When Berg was a Fargo legislator and the state House majority leader in 2005, he introduced and voted for a resolution that formally supported Congress’ efforts to reform Social Security.

The resolution specifically endorsed then-President George W. Bush’s plan for “voluntary private accounts.” Proposals to use private accounts for Social Security are often referred to as “privatizing” the program.

Berg introduced the resolution with two other legislators and three state senators, all Republicans.

“The federal government has personal savings accounts for many of the federal employees that put money aside for retirement, and I think it’s time for Congress to look at this for individuals. Not to mandate them, but to give them an option,” Berg said in testimony before the state House Judiciary Committee in March 2005.

The state House voted 67-26 – including Berg’s support – to pass the resolution that spring.

That same year, Berg joined the House majority in a 59-25 vote to oppose a similar resolution proposed by Democratic lawmakers that urged Congress to “forego any effort to privatize any aspect of the federal Social Security system.”

Berg’s campaign on Wednesday sought to dismiss this claim in the ad, stating: “As a state legislator, Rick Berg had no impact on Social Security, a program administered by the federal government.”

As a candidate for U.S. House two years ago and now as a U.S. Senate candidate this year, Berg has said he opposes privatizing Social Security.

“We must find a way to preserve and strengthen Social Security without raising payroll taxes, reducing benefits, increasing the retirement age, or privatizing the system,” Berg said during his 2010 House bid.

Narrator: “First, Berg wanted Wall Street to gamble your life savings in the market …

In February 2005, when Congress was considering Bush’s plan for private accounts, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman likened investing Social Security in the stock market to “gambling with your retirement.”

“The only way to get ahead would be to invest in risky assets like stocks, and hope for higher yields,” Krugman said in breaking down Bush’s plan.

Bush’s plan died in Congress after facing Democratic opposition and mixed Republican support.

Narrator: “… (and) last year, Rick sponsored a plan that would cut guaranteed benefits to seniors.”

In July 2011, Berg voted with the Republican majority in the U.S. House to pass the “Cut, Cap and Balance Act” by a 234-190 vote.

The bill was part of last summer’s debate over raising the debt ceiling and cutting federal spending. “Cut, Cap and Balance” would have:

— reduced federal spending for 2012, while excluding defense, Medicare and Social Security programs from such budget cut

— set caps on the money available for Congress to spend for the next 10 years

— and required both houses of Congress to pass a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning think tank, alleged that the act would “inexorably subject Social Security and Medicare to deep reductions.”

However, various national media and the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan arm of the Library of Congress, reported that “Medicare, military retirement, Social Security and veterans” programs would be exempt from the mandatory spending cuts.

“Cut, Cap and Balance” died for lack of action in the Senate.

Read previous “Forum Fact-checks” for facts and information about ads in North Dakota’s U.S. Senate race.

Gulleson urges Cramer to return ‘unethical’ donations

Pam Gulleson

FARGO – The Democratic candidate for North Dakota’s U.S. House seat is calling on her opponent to end a controversy over what she says are unethical and potentially illegal campaign contributions.

At a news conference Wednesday, Pam Gulleson said Republican Kevin Cramer should answer for a “personal decision” he made to accept donations from interests he regulates as a state public service commissioner.

Kevin Cramer

“The right and ethical thing to do is give them back,” Gulleson said.

The November election will determine whether Cramer, Gulleson or Fargo libertarian Eric Olson will be North Dakota’s next U.S. representative.

“(Cramer has) put himself in a position of asking for further trust from the citizens of North Dakota, and I don’t think he warrants it,” Gulleson said.

For weeks, North Dakota Democrats – and, in particular, the party’s PSC candidate, Brad Crabtree – have lambasted Cramer and fellow public service commissioner Brian Kalk with claims the pair engaged in impropriety by accepting donations from energy interests regulated by the three-member PSC.

Wednesday was the first time Gulleson publicly weighed in on the issue that affects her opponent.

“I’ve followed this closely,” she said, “and I think more questions should be addressed.”

Gulleson’s campaign said Cramer has accepted $36,500 in state contributions and $27,500 in federal contributions from interests he regulates. Gulleson said her own campaign contributions are transparent and in line with federal requirements.

“My funds are held up to scrutiny each and every day, and I’m willing to defend them,” she said. “But it’s a very different thing: I’m not a regulator.”

Both Kalk and Cramer have said repeatedly that the donations – like all others they receive – are a reflection of their values and donors’ free speech. They both deny claims that the money influenced their decision-making.

Nonetheless, the controversy is a target of two pending federal lawsuits.

In one case, the Dakota Resource Council, an environmental advocacy group, and the state’s chapter of the Sierra Club are seeking to have the Public Service Commission stripped of its oversight on coal mining.

In a separate lawsuit, the Dakota Resource Council accused the PSC of not complying with several federal requirements in the way it regulated mining.

While Gulleson says Cramer and Kalk should be held accountable for the donations they accepted, she said doesn’t agree that the PSC should have its oversight power taken away.

“It’s a personal mistake, not one of their public office,” Gulleson said. “We know best how to regulate and have authority over our energy interests, but it’s the actions of these two commissioners that have put the state of North Dakota at risk.”

Gulleson said North Dakota taxpayers should also not be responsible for paying for Cramer’s and Kalk’s legal defense in the two lawsuits. North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem appointed a Denver-based law firm to represent Kalk and Cramer in U.S. District Court.

North Dakota law allows state agencies to request the appointment of outside counsel, which can then be appointed as a special assistant attorney general, said Liz Brocker, spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office.

“Selection process, discussion of costs, fee agreement and billing statements are solely between the (appointed counsel) and the agency requesting the appointment,” she said.

ANALYSIS: Heitkamp, Berg carefully control messages, appearances in nationally watched Senate race

FARGO – North Dakota’s U.S. Senate race is widely viewed as one of the most competitive in the nation.

Yet here on the prairie, the contest between Republican Rep. Rick Berg and Democrat Heidi Heitkamp is less engaging than distant observers proclaim.

Heidi Heitkamp

Heitkamp and Berg have been cautious, preferring to deliver their message via TV screens, where campaigns can carefully control the message.

“These candidates are getting out early, trying to define themselves and connect with voters,” said Kjersten Nelson, an assistant political science professor at North Dakota State University. “Especially with national interest focused on this race, each candidate is trying to define him/herself before the opponent does it first.”

Both candidates have crisscrossed the state, yet they’ve done so mostly to walk in parades, cater to donors at private fundraisers and do meet-and-greets with special interest groups.

Rick Berg

They’ve spent far less time hosting open public events where they’re subject to the scrutiny of average Joes.

The candidates also have yet to face each other in person.

State political observers expect the race’s tone to change after Labor Day, when the campaign season really kicks into gear.

“We’re going to see 60 days of ugliness that we’ve never experienced in North Dakota before,” said Jim Fuglie, a longtime state political observer who once briefly led North Dakota’s Democratic Party.

The stakes are high

Nearly 20 years of an all-Democratic congressional delegation brought mostly predictable contests in North Dakota, but the 2010 House race and this year’s Senate campaign have been a stark contrast.

The seat of retiring Sen. Kent Conrad gives the state GOP a chance at securing the same lock Democrats once had on the delegation.

Nationally, the race also has partisan significance.

“This is a critical race here for Republicans who are trying to capture the Senate,” Fuglie said.

Despite the high stakes, North Dakota’s race will be decided by a small fraction.

Independent polling this summer indicates that Heitkamp and Berg are fighting over about 5 to 10 percent of likely voters who say they’re still undecided.

That’s likely no more than 32,000 North Dakotans, based on voter turnout in the 2008 general election.

It’s unprecedented for North Dakota, Fuglie said.

“Generally, North Dakotans are late to make up their minds when it’s a close election,” Fuglie said. “You’ve got this whole election dynamic playing out, seeking the voters of a very small group of people, and it’s one of the most unusual things I’ve ever seen in North Dakota politics.”

How it’s handicapped

The view of North Dakota’s race has evolved over time from an easy Republican win to an all-out horse race.

For months, national analysts pegged Berg as the favorite, but the tides have changed this summer. Many now call the Berg-Heitkamp race a “toss-up.”

As a congressman, analysts say Berg runs as a pseudo-incumbent in a diehard red state. But they also say Heitkamp has closed the gap.

“There’s a palpable sense that the sheer force of Heitkamp’s personality and likability has her in the game,” wrote Politico analyst Dave Catanese, previously a TV journalist in Bismarck.

In official polling, though, Berg hasn’t relinquished his edge.

Out of three independent polls conducted since early May, Berg leads by an average of 5 percentage points over Heitkamp, Real Clear Politics found.

Democrats beg to differ with that conclusion. The four internal polls they’ve released since last fall repeatedly show Heitkamp as the candidate ahead.

Controlling the message

Despite the spotlight on the race, Heitkamp and Berg’s face-to-face interactions with the public have been controlled.

Berg has been rarely seen or heard from outside of the routine weekend parade or his TV ads. His public appearances have been almost exclusively confined to his role as a U.S. congressman rather than as a Senate hopeful.

Still, Berg emphasizes travel and public appearances as a key point of his campaign.

“Every chance I get, I want to be meeting and talking to people in North Dakota,” Berg said. “What’s important to me is to meet with as many people across North Dakota as I possibly can over the next three months.”

Berg added that his public events would be posted on his campaign website going forward.

Heitkamp has some future events listed on her website. She’s held at least a couple dozen campaign events – outside of parades – to which the public has been invited.

Still, the majority of Heitkamp’s public appearances have come on less than a day’s notice, a scheduling inconvenience that has the potential to limit the public’s access to the candidate.

A key example of that came this spring when Heitkamp held two series of town hall events in four cities. Notice of the town halls came less than 24 hours before the events.

Heitkamp said she feels the public had enough time to learn of them.

She said each of her town hall events in Fargo, Bismarck, Grand Forks and Minot drew a packed audience – in venues that could hold no more than between 50 and 200 people – and she answered questions from critics who attended.

Berg has held no such open forums during his campaign, though Heitkamp acknowledges that she has more time to do so and that Berg has obligations in Congress.

Like Berg, Heitkamp said meeting personally with voters is at the heart of her campaign, “the most important thing.”

Nonetheless, there’s a perception among observers of the race – including others on the campaign trail this year – that neither candidate spent much time personally meeting with general voters this summer.

One such person is Republican Kevin Cramer, a former leader of the North Dakota Republican Party who’s known both candidates for years and is engaged in his own political battle for Berg’s House seat.

“I’m a little surprised,” Cramer said during a conversation this summer with The Forum Editorial Board. “The only thing I can think of in this particular case is just that they both may be afraid of misstepping, and the consequence of that could be that 1 percent that changes the whole election.”

“Rick is just by nature more cautious,” Cramer said. “That’s not just this campaign; that’s always been his style. He’s a calculating thinker, so that doesn’t surprise me.”

“It is uncharacteristic, however, of Heidi, and maybe it’s a new discipline that’s being imposed on her,” Cramer said.

In general, NDSU political professor Nelson said defining a candidate’s public persona can be tricky.

“The difficulty for candidates in this type of situation is walking that fine line: trying to cultivate a more relaxed and likable persona but also being themselves,” she said.

Heading into the fall

With the 2012 campaign season already inundating North Dakotans, analysts suggest that before now, it might have been too soon to hold frequent public events.

But with less than three months left until Election Day, that’s likely to change, said Mark Jendrysik, a political science professor at the University of North Dakota.

“There’s absolutely no getting around the need for that face-to-face retail campaigning,” Jendrysik said. “I don’t think you can win a campaign with just bombarding the airwaves with ads.”

Nelson agrees that voters tend to take notice of political campaigns as summer ends.

“Certainly, the candidates have been working hard to persuade and reinforce those who pay attention early … but there soon is going to be a whole new batch of voters who are paying attention now where they weren’t before, and the candidates will want to be delivering the same messages to them, as well,” she said.

Heitkamp and Berg have publicly agreed to two joint appearances before Election Day.

Their first is a debate set for Sept. 5 at the annual North Dakota Broadcasters Association meeting in Bismarck. They’ll meet again later that month to tape a televised debate that will air on Prairie Public TV in October.

Heitkamp originally challenged Berg to seven debates but, strategically, it might be “wise” for Berg to commit to only two debates, Jendrysik said.

“I would say he’s still the favorite, and more debates are only going to increase the chances of a catastrophic mistake,” Jendrysik said.

Nelson agrees that Berg has less to gain from debating than Heitkamp does.

“Certainly, both of the candidates in this race have records that can be aired, but given Congress’ unpopularity, it is understandable that Berg may not want to contend with a give-and-take on that in a relatively uncontrolled setting,” she said.

Nasty politics

As the campaign closes, the contest between Berg and Heitkamp is likely to get more negative, a premise both candidates recognize but say they don’t personally like or support.

In North Dakota, where a Senate race hasn’t been this close for a long time, it may feel more negative than usual, Nelson said.

“The candidates are going to be doing all they can to open up those differences between them, not to mention the third parties who will be trying to do this as well,” she said.

So far, most of the negative campaigning has come from such outside groups that don’t have any connection to North Dakota or – by law – either candidate, but they have a wealth of money to spend pushing their political agendas.

“That may or may not be beyond the control of the candidates.” Fuglie said.

Despite knowing where the mudslinging has come from to date, Berg and Heitkamp have blamed each other for attacks and downplayed their own.

For instance, when talking about negative campaigning, Heitkamp berates Berg’s attack ads, while neglecting to mention her campaign’s own assaults.

Heitkamp released in mid-June the first attack ad of the two candidates; however, it was published only online. The ad used home-video-style footage of Berg at a GOP campaign event, in which he’s unaware he’s being filmed by a Democratic operative.

Heitkamp also released a radio ad last week that criticizes Berg on farm issues.

“I think it’s been pretty negative so far,” Heitkamp said of the race, laying sole blame on Berg. “If I had my druthers, we’d eliminate all TV advertising, and we would go to a system where we have debates … so people could see us side by side.”

Berg’s campaign has released three negative TV ads, all of which include dialogue calling into question Heitkamp’s trustworthiness.

When asked about the tone of the race, Berg said: “I’m a positive, upbeat person. I can’t control what a lot of these outside groups are doing.”

Outside of ads, most of the digs between the campaigns seek to discredit the opponent’s candidacy.

Berg relentlessly paints Heitkamp as a loyal ally to President Barack Obama, a maneuver that echoes national Republicans who try to demonize the president’s policies, mostly by emphasizing his controversial health care reform law.

Meanwhile, Heitkamp’s campaign consistently tries to cast Berg as an ineffective congressman and a lock-step follower of House GOP leadership.

“They’re both trying to paint the other as dangerous,” Jendrysik said.

Fuglie said Heitkamp and Berg are also battling to prove who’s more relatable to voters.

When it comes to appealing to voters, Nelson said each candidate has their target audience they’re trying to reach, especially through TV ads.

“It looks to me like Berg is trying to shore up support among women … while Heitkamp appears to be emphasizing her independence,” Nelson said.

Fuglie said Berg – like North Dakota Republicans, in general – holds the edge on the ground game that could determine the race.

“He has the advantage of this being a Republican state with a large block of Republican voters,” Fuglie said.

He said Berg needs to shore up his Republican base and fend off Heitkamp’s attempts to sway moderate Republicans and independent voters at the polls.

“You have to give the appearance of being visible,” Fuglie said. “You have to be out among the voters. Whether that affects a large number of voters, it probably doesn’t, but you have to do it anyway.”