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The Capital of Retail Politics

In mid-July, the Minot Daily News ran a picture of Democratic Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp beaming in front of a wall of bras. She was judging a “Bedazzle Your Bra” contest at the North Dakota state fair to raise money for breast cancer awareness. It’s the kind of thing that Heitkamp, the state’s former attorney general who was diagnosed with cancer in 2000, does best. After calling the wining bra “absolutely stunning,” Heitkamp offered words of encouragement to those struggling with the disease: “You can make it. You can do it. You can put one foot in front of the other to see yourself through.”

In a more populous state, this bit of theater might seem meaningless against the onslaught of political advertising and commentary. But such small appearances make a big impact in North Dakota, where retail politics still play an outsize role. This helps explain how Heitkamp, who has run five statewide races before, is breathing down the neck of the Republican candidate, freshman Congressman Rick Berg even though Mitt Romney is expected to handily carry the state. North Dakota is a red state—it’s voted for the Republican in every presidential election since 1968—but its residents are independent-minded. They’ve shown a willingness to split the ballot and send Democrats (especially likable ones), to Washington. The Berg-Heitkamp race is shaping up to be one of the closest Senate contests. As a result, outside money is flooding the state. To date, roughly $5,600,000 has been spent by outside groups on both sides on the race, according to Open Secrets and the Sunlight Foundation—and though that’s less than many of the other competitive races, it is still a lot of money for a state of only 683,932 people. In April, Crossroads GPS, the sister organization to the conservative super PAC American Crossroads, started spending money on the race; they’ve spent $1.1 million, including some on issue advocacy, in North Dakota, so far. The biggest Democratic super PAC contributor, Majority PAC, has funneled roughly $1,048, 221 into the contest, according to Open Secrets.

The latest ads on both sides have focused on Medicare—an important issue to likely North Dakota voters, 35 percent of whom are over 55. But the nastiest ones have been ad hominem. Crossroads GPS had to remove a television ad in August that falsely accused Heitkamp of using tax dollars to fly on private planes while she was the state’s attorney general. And Heitkamp ran an ad that Berg has denounced as false linking his work in real estate to privatizing social security. “Rick Berg, treating seniors the same way he treats its tenants,” the ad says.

Is it working? North Dakota—home to the “World’s Largest Buffalo” and a place where it’s a running joke that ketchup is too spicy—is an odd state with an odd political climate. The culture in North Dakota is marked by a rugged individualism. Its citizens are populist and egalitarian and skeptical of centralized power, says Dr. Dana Michael Harsell, an assistant professor at the University of North Dakota and co-author of Governing North Dakota. “North Dakotans hold their cards very close to their vest when it comes to voting,” he says.

Thanks to their self-reliance, North Dakotans enjoy more democracy than most. It is the only state in the union that doesn’t require voter registration, resulting in high turnout: 65 percent in the 2004 general election. And there are more local governments—one for every 233 residents—than any other state, according to Harsell’s work. As a result, North Dakotans have come to expect face time with their elected officials. When they go to the capital to visit, North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad told me over the phone, “they actually get to meet with me.”

This culture has led to the kind of bi-polar politics you see in North Dakota. “You’ll find that personal acquaintance is as important as ideology” Lloyd Omdahl, an 81-year-old former Lieutenant Governor, and a Democrat who has been involved in North Dakota politics since before it had a Democratic Party. “In local politics in North Dakota, they don’t run on issues, they run on organizations and the church they belong to. The person who has been around the district the most is the one who wins, Republican or Democrat.”

One example of personality trumping ideology was the Senate election in 1986, when Democrat Kent Conrad shocked everyone by coming from 30 points behind to beat Republican incumbent Senator Mark Andrews. The win was possible because North Dakotans had started to question Andrews’ character. “[H]e is deemed to have become a bit unfriendly,” the Economist wrote at the time—explaining that North Dakotans were skeptical of the medical malpractice lawsuit he’d filed on behalf of his wife against a North Dakota hospital and his hiring of private eyes to investigate Democratic Congressman (later Senator), Byron Dorgan.

The dynamics may be similar in this race. Berg, one of the richest members of Congress, has come under scrutiny for his business dealings with a real estate company that has been charged with fire safety violations; he voted for the Ryan plan (a hit on Medicare unpopular with North Dakota’s elderly electorate); he’s failed to deliver a vote on the farm bill in Congress; and his approval rating is the lowest among state-wide officials. A poll by the Democratic Garin-Hart-Yang research group at the beginning of the race showed Berg’s approval at 33 percent, as compared with over 60 percent for his colleagues. Heitkamp, who is a moderate (she is friendly with the oil and gas industry), is just plain more likable.

Since character, trust, and face time are so important in North Dakota, it is hard to gauge the effectiveness of millions of dollars spent on political advertising, which Senator Conrad told me, North Dakotans “hate” even more than people in most states. “People are very independent-minded there. They have a pretty good sense of what is real and what is phony and these anonymous groups with their endless attack ads, I think, has diminished relevance in a state like North Dakota where our politics is pretty up close and personal. I mean, when you actually know the people, its harder to put an advertising gloss on something that is not real.”

What is more, North Dakota, while reliably a red state, is not a partisan one, and voters there have historically preferred moderates. For that reason, negative advertising rubs them the wrong way. “So much of modern life is conversation. People say things, but they aren’t necessarily backed up,” Conrad explained, “North Dakota is a farm state. You can’t fake farming, either the crop is planted or its not. [I]think that leads to a somewhat different culture that is based in reality rather than sloganeering.”

That doesn’t mean that money spent on advertising wont matter at all in North Dakota. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee—which circulated an internal memo calling the race a toss up the day Heitkamp entered because they knew she was a particularly strong candidate—has kept pace in the race with its Republican counterpart. They’re hoping Heitkamp’s charisma will give her an edge.

“It’s clear money has an impact, but candidates matter, campaigns matter,” says Matt Canter, Communications Director at the DSCC, “especially in North Dakota, where a lot of voters know Heidi, and if they don’t know her, they know someone who does.”

Still, Republicans maintain a slight lead of about 5 points, according to Real Clear Politics, and they are confident that their money will pay off. Nate Hodson of American Crossroads, says “If we didn’t think it was value added, we wouldn’t do it.” To really find out, we’ll have to wait for the results.