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Mike Jacobs: Wild cards could tip election outcome

One of the big unknowns in this year's U.S. Senate race in North Dakota appears to have been removed -- by the candidate herself. Heidi Heitkamp has boxed herself in. Based on her campaign, she has to vote against the confirmation of President Tr...

One of the big unknowns in this year's U.S. Senate race in North Dakota appears to have been removed - by the candidate herself. Heidi Heitkamp has boxed herself in. Based on her campaign, she has to vote against the confirmation of President Trump's Supreme Court nominee. If she votes yes, she risks losing Democratic voters and thus the election.

Proof positive arrived in our mailbox Saturday in the form of a flier paid for by the state Democratic Party. The front page said, "When it comes to respecting the rights of women, Kevin Cramer's living in the 1940s." The back page asserted that Cramer, the Republican candidate for the seat now held by Heitkamp, "has no respect for the women of North Dakota. The same day, an emailed press release criticized Cramer for remarks he made about a woman who has made accusations against the Supreme Court nominee.

These were only the latest indications that Heitkamp will vote against nominee Brett Kavanaugh. She has consistently presented herself as an independent; Kavanaugh's record suggests he supports super powers that would put a sitting president above the law. Heitkamp has made health care a central issue in her campaign, explicitly criticizing North Dakota's attorney general for joining a Texas lawsuit challenging coverage for pre-existing conditions in the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. Trump's nominee appears hostile to the ACA.

Heitkamp has used these issues to define herself in this campaign. Voting to seat Kavanaugh would negate that definition, which may alienate Democrats and uncommitted voters. That's not a winning strategy, especially in a race as close as this one. Heitkamp needs those votes to win.

There will be a backlash, but that could benefit Heitkamp because it will emphasize her issues and polish the reputation as an independent that she has so carefully nurtured. It's probably a mistake to think that the nomination would be a decisive factor in this election in any case. It's of critical importance to abortion opponents, but in recent North Dakota elections they've been rebuffed.

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Staring down the Kavanaugh issue doesn't mean the race is won for Heitkamp, however. This campaign has so many variables that projections are all over the board, ranging from double-digit leads for Cramer to single-digit margins for Heitkamp. Practically every observer is hedging, and the consensus seems to be that the outcome is a toss-up.

As I said last week, I think momentum has shifted slightly toward Heitkamp, and this column argues that the Kavanaugh vote won't change that.

That doesn't eliminate other "wild cards" in this election. Tariffs top the list, and that issue cuts two ways, by pushing commodity prices down and raw materials imports up. Another is economic performance. Overall growth in the economy might lessen the sting of tariffs.

The focus of the campaign is another of the wild cards. To an unusual extent, this has become a national campaign, about the president and his performance more than about local issues. This may benefit Cramer, who has been a consistent Trump supporter, and the president did win 63 percent of votes in the state just two years ago. Lopsided results in previous presidential elections don't predict later results, however, as proven in the 1986 U.S. Senate election in North Dakota.

The ballot presents still other wild cards, too: an ethics amendment, a rewording of voting requirements and legal recreational use of marijuana. Each has appeal to its own segment of voters, and that could push up overall turnout.

Turnout is the most important of the election fundamentals.

Heitkamp won by fewer than 3,000 votes in 2012, a margin of less than 1 percent. She did well among voters in inner cities and in Indian Country, traditional Democratic strongholds. To win, she'll need those votes again. Some Native leaders have expressed disappointment in Heitkamp's attitude toward the Dakota Access Pipeline protest, and that could discourage some native voters, although a get-out-the-vote campaign could overcome this inertia. Of course, Cramer's campaign might use the backlash against the protests to try to gain votes.

The large number of new voters is another wild card. The secretary of state's office reported 532,776 eligible voters in 2012. The preliminary estimate for this election is higher by nearly 50,000 - an increase of 9.4 percent. It's impossible to know for sure how these new voters are distributed across the state - but a Republican activist pointed me toward a portentous clue.

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In legislative District 39, a total of 3,698 voters were cast for the Republican candidate for state Senate in the primary election held in June; in the 2014 primary election, when the seat was last on the ballot, 2,323 Republican votes were cast. That's an increase of 1,375 ballots, or 60 percent, and the candidate was unopposed for the party endorsement.

District 39 is a sprawling spread extending along the state's western border from the Missouri River to the South Dakota line. That's Oil Country, and those are energy voters, and there are enough of them to count in this year's hottest contest.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald. He can be reached at mjacobs@gfherald.com .

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