Republicans were supposed to have an easy time of it in North Dakota’s U.S. Senate race. The multi-term Democrat, Kent Conrad, wasn’t running for re-election, and this region is supposed to be Republican in its conservative soul. Thus, according to the script, Republican Rep. Rick Berg should have had this Senate seat in the bag — as his Democratic foe, Heidi Heitkamp, tried to crawl uphill with a heavy D on her back. Contrary to these expectations, the RealClearPolitics poll average rates this race a “tossup.”
Which suggests flaws in the assumption, does it not? The wisdom bubbling up from Washington’s partisan bunkers ignores a political reality of the northern Great Plains: People in Nebraska and the Dakotas vote the person more than the party. Their worldview may burn a Republican red, but their votes trend purple. They vote for the person they like and trust, and they split tickets. Out-of-state activists pouring contempt on locals running for office do so at their own risk.
Recall all that boiling oil rightwingers threw on former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a thorn in George W. Bush’s side. The hotter the attacks the higher rose his standing as the state’s most respected politician.
Heitkamp’s campaign has stuck to practical concerns, such as maintaining adequate flight connections and finding federal dollars to repair flood-ravaged cities. (Despite the region’s reputation for conservative self-sufficiency, it is highly dependent on farm subsidies and tax breaks for wind power.) The Democrat’s strongest card could be her super kindness to ordinary folk in a state where the people are few and so each one counts — and where niceness is a virtue. Berg comes off as the business guy wanting to make his mark on the national stage.
People in Massachusetts are less famous for being nice, but even there, Sen. Scott Brown has shown that an affable Republican can go far in a Democratic stronghold. (Former Gov. Mitt Romney was another example.) Brown is running a strong race against the spear-throwing Democrat Elizabeth Warren.
Hating another’s ideas is not a problem and may have a role in civic debate. Hating the holder of the ideas is a problem that boomerangs on the party encouraging such distemper. Witness the strange primary races in which partisans condemn certain contenders by showing pictures of them shaking hands with leaders from the other party. They don’t get it that citizens outside their high walls might put such photos in frames.
In Indiana, Dick Lugar’s Senate seat would still be in his safe Republican hands had the party enforcers not insisted on replacing him with someone they could better control. During the primary, Lugar was condemned as “Obama’s favorite Republican.”
Lugar refused to recant on positions deemed too moderate for the tea party activists. While officially endorsing the victor, he issued a tough-worded statement, urging state Treasurer Richard Mourdock “to revise his stated goal of bringing more partisanship to Washington.”
Lugar was so revered and the primary brawl turned so nasty that a significant number of Republicans aren’t supporting Mourdock, now tied in the polls with Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly. Lugar’s favorability numbers remain twice Mourdock’s, and some of the nominee’s backers now want the senator to actively campaign for their man. Good luck on that.
Back in North Dakota, Democrat Heitkamp is saying, “I fundamentally believe we need to get partisanship out of government if we’re going to get anything done.”
Republican Berg is saying, “This whole thing kind of boils down to, Do you want someone who’s going to fight against President Obama?” Is that the “whole thing”? Small wonder he’s not doing better in the polls.
©2012 The Providence Journal Co.