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No more speculation: Heitkamp to run for U.S. Senate

The race to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad in Congress heated up Tuesday as former North Dakota Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp ended weeks of speculation and announced that she will run for the U.S. Senate.

Heidi Heitkamp

The race to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad in Congress heated up Tuesday as former North Dakota Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp ended weeks of speculation and announced that she will run for the U.S. Senate.

Heitkamp, 56, issued a written statement Tuesday morning saying she is seeking the office "because Washington is badly broken and our state needs an independent voice who will go there to stand up for North Dakota."

She told the Herald she had been "kind of going back and forth" about the Senate race in recent months. But after discussing the possible campaign with friends, colleagues and political leaders, she said she firmly made up her mind in the past couple of weeks.

"I really want this campaign to be about who would be the best United States Senator for the people of North Dakota," she said. "Who is going to put North Dakota's interests first and who is going to go to Washington to say, 'Enough with the bickering and let's get things done.'"

'A competitive candidate'

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North Dakota's U.S. Senate race is already drawing national attention, even a year before Election Day.

Conrad has held the office since 1986, but his announcement in January that he will not run for a sixth term makes it an open seat -- one that Democrats want to keep and Republicans want to win for the first time in decades, as they did with the state's two other formerly Democratic-held spots in Congress during the 2010 elections.

The Cook Political Report labeled the race as "Likely Republican" following Republican Rep. Rick Berg's May announcement that he would run for the Senate. Berg, 52, won his first term as North Dakota's lone member of the U.S. House last November when he defeated longtime Democratic incumbent Earl Pomeroy with 55 percent of the vote.

But Senior Editor Jennifer Duffy said Tuesday that Heitkamp's announcement gives the Democrats "a competitive candidate and some much-needed good news" that has made the race closer. Cook Political Report moved North Dakota's U.S. Senate race to its "Lean Republican" column.

Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Tuesday that Heitkamp's announcement has made the race "officially a toss-up." He said she is "no generic Democrat," but instead is "an independent, reform-minded, fiscal conservative."

Cecil's statement included survey results from Geoff Garin, who polled 614 North Dakota voters in August and found Berg held just a 33 percent job approval rating. About 55 percent disapproved of his job performance, giving him a net job approval of negative 22 points.

Garin said he has polled in North Dakota since 1985, but Berg's performance ratings are the "lowest by far" he has ever measured for a federally elected official in the state.

"Despite North Dakota's Republican leanings, the votes are clearly there for a Democratic candidate to defeat Rick Berg next year," Garin wrote.

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GOP attack

Stan Stein, chairman of the North Dakota Republican Party, issued a written statement Tuesday continuing the party's criticism of Heitkamp that began last week with full-page ads in the Forum and The Bismarck Tribune.

He said Heitkamp "continues to be among President Obama's top supporters," attacking her for her support of last year's federal health care reform legislation and the $700 billion Wall Street bailout.

"It's clear that President Obama wants Heidi Heitkamp in Washington, but North Dakotans need a United States Senator who will stand up for our values and best interests," he wrote.

Stein told the Herald that Republicans have always assumed the Democrats would field "a quality candidate" for the U.S. Senate race, and they expected Heitkamp would soon announce her bid for the office.

"We welcome Heidi to the race," he said. "I think one thing it's going to do is assure that the people of North Dakota a year from now are going to have a clear-cut choice."

Heitkamp said the GOP's pre-emptive attacks are "just your typical politics," but she said her campaign will instead focus on the issues.

"When you can't talk about issues, you talk about labels, and it's a bad sign for them that that's how they started out," she said.

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Heitkamp said North Dakota needs "a strong voice" in the Senate to deal with water issues, including flood protection projects in Devils Lake and the Red River Valley as well as flood relief to help the people of Minot rebuild.

The Farm Bill is another "huge issue" for the state, she said, as is ensuring Medicare and Medicaid will continue to be there to take care of seniors. And Heitkamp said Congress needs to focus on "putting the fiscal house of this country back in order" as lawmakers grapple with record deficits and a growing national debt.

"I will tell you that if we don't start talking to each other, if we don't' stop bickering, if we don't' begin to deal with the problems of this country, then the government will have failed the people," she said. "Honestly, that's the reason I'm in this race. If you want to help North Dakota, being North Dakota's next United States Senator is absolutely the right place to be."

Other candidates

While Berg and Heitkamp are now the presumed front-runners in the U.S. Senate race, both will face competition within their own parties before they can make the 2012 ballot.

Republican Duane Sand, 46, announced in August that he will seek the GOP endorsement for Senate at the statewide convention next spring.

Tom Potter, 62, became the first Democratic-NPL candidate for Senate when he announced his intentions last month. The Grand Forks resident and part-time pastor said he expected Heitkamp's announcement and that he will still seek the Democratic endorsement next spring.

"The party leaders tell me that competition is a good thing and I believe I agree with them," he said. "With two of us on the stump, raising money, honing arguments, talking to voters and energizing our side, I don't see how that could be anything but positive."

Public service

Conrad told the Herald that Heitkamp would make an "exceptional" senator. He hired her as his general counsel while serving as North Dakota Tax Commissioner, an office that Heitkamp successfully campaigned for when he retired to run for the U.S. Senate.

"Heidi has North Dakota in her DNA," he said. "She is the face of North Dakota. She is smart, talented, experienced and deeply knowledgeable on agriculture and energy and economic issues. She is what the doctor ordered to help get this country back on track."

After one term as tax commissioner, Heitkamp won two terms as the state's attorney general in 1992 and 1996, receiving more than 60 percent of the vote each time.

She has since served as director of the Dakota Gasification energy company, a role she said she would not have to give up while on the campaign trail next year.

Heitkamp hasn't appeared on a North Dakota ballot since 2000, when she unsuccessfully ran for governor against Republican John Hoeven. She had long been rumored to be preparing for another gubernatorial bid in 2012, but Conrad said he "strongly encouraged" her to instead run for the Senate.

"I think she is the strongest candidate in the field," Conrad said. "She has been elected repeatedly statewide, and by big margins, and is deeply knowledgeable about the state of North Dakota in all of its aspects. She is just what you'd hope for in a candidate for the United States Senate because when she's elected, she will serve with distinction."

A matter of money

Mark Jendrysik, chair of UND's Department of Political Science and Public Administration, said Heitkamp's announcement "elevates" the U.S. Senate race because she boasts wide name recognition and a past record of being elected to statewide office.

But Berg is "certainly in a good position" because he is a congressional incumbent who has more recent name recognition and an active ability to raise funds for the campaign.

"I think he starts off with some fairly big advantages," Jendrysik said. "She's got to definitely work to re-establish name recognition and to remind the voters where she stands on the issues."

Still, Jendrysik said Heitkamp is the most well-known of the possible Democratic candidates in this cycle.

"A lot of it's going to come down to how much money can she raise and how much money is the national party willing to spend in North Dakota."

Stein said Heitkamp's entrance will probably "increase the intensity" of a race that national Democratic and Republican groups were already watching.

"No doubt, this is going to get national attention," he said. "It's going to be a good and exciting and fun cycle here. This Senate seat is being targeted nationally, and I guess it's game on."

Johnson reports on local politics. Reach him at (701) 780-1105; (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or send email to rjohnson@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: HEIDI HEITKAMPRICK BERG
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