The fizz has gone out of North Dakota politics. One by one, promising Republican candidates have passed up a chance to challenge U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp.
Heitkamp is a Democrat in what Republicans like to regard as a "deeply Republican state." We heard this Sunday from blogger Rob Port, as dependable a spokesman for the party and its ideology as can be found among political pundits in the state.
More than that, Heitkamp is regarded as one of the most vulnerable Senate incumbents on this year's ballots. We know this from CNN's rankings, and Republican publicity continually reminds us.
The party had been courting promising candidates. Kathy Neset was the first of these to drop out. She's a kind of superstar, a geologist who's built a consulting company and become a regular at oil industry expos. She's a current member and past chair of the Board of Higher Education. Next to exit was Tammy Miller, chief executive of Border States Electric and co-chair of a regional economic development initiative. Both of them were gone before Christmas.
Last week, Rick Becker said he wouldn't be making the race, either. He's a state representative and the founder of the Legislature's conservative Bastiat Caucus. There's work to be done in North Dakota, he said.
That leaves state Sen. Tom Campbell as the only announced candidate. There a spanner in the works for Campbell though, named Kevin Cramer, who is the state's only member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He's still thinking about the race, he says, and he's let us know - more than once - that Donald Trump wants him in it.
This lack of enthusiasm, by Cramer and three other candidates, suggests something interesting. Cramer is pondering the conclusion that others have reached, which is that the race isn't worth the risk. Perhaps he's reluctant to say so in order to tease Campbell, who has said he'll run for the House if Cramer enters the Senate race.
Evidently the potential candidates have stumbled on an important truth about North Dakota politics. North Dakota is deeply Republican. Probably 40 percent of North Dakota, perhaps a few more, would vote for any Republican. Democrats can count on fewer than 30 percent in any given election, and sometimes less.
But North Dakota is even more deeply self-interested than it is deeply Republican. Successful candidates know that, and choose their races carefully.
Heitkamp has made a virtue of her own independent streak, and an analysis printed in Sunday's Herald buttressed her case.
Herald reporter April Baumgarten analyzed a report on party loyalty among members of Congress published by the watchdog website ProPublica. Heitkamp had the least partisan voting record among the state's three-member congressional delegation. She voted against her party 22.5 percent of the time; the figure for John Hoeven, her Senate colleague, was 7.7 percent. For Congressman Cramer, it was 3 percent.
Cramer's explanation, reported by Baumgarten, was "I'm very grateful that the Republican agenda is the North Dakota agenda." She quoted Heitkamp asking, "Is North Dakota's interest always 100 percent aligned with the Democratic Party? I would say the answer is no. But I also don't think North Dakota's interest is always 100 percent aligned with the Republican Party."
Misalignments have appeared. Reporting last week showed that North Dakota will be among the states most harmed if trade with Cuba is reduced. The state also has a bigger than average stake in the North American Free Trade Agreement. The farm bill will be reopened this year. The original draft of the tax bill removed a provision important to sugar growers and communities that depend on them.
Rep. Cramer missed this oversight. Hoeven had to correct it when the tax bill reached the Senate. The Trump administration seems determined to remove every impediment to oil and gas production, putting North Dakota producers at a disadvantage in a competitive marketplace. Even the administration's crackdown on marijuana seems misaligned with North Dakota's interests. Voters approved medical marijuana.
These misalignments don't doom a Republican candidate, or course, but they create an opportunity for a Democrat who's willing to work hard - as Heitkamp proved in a narrow victory in 2012. She's been careful to choose her issues and to maintain a respectful relationship with the president.
Then there is that recurring trend in American politics, the election cycle. Elections in non-presidential years often punish the president's party. Potential Republican candidates perceived and pondered these realities, and dropped out.
This isn't a prediction about the election results, but it does explain why the fizz has gone out of North Dakota politics.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.