WDAY: The News Leader

Published November 06, 2012, 09:07 AM

In North Dakota, campaigning stops as voters make decisions

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A longstanding North Dakota law that banned campaigning on Election Day may have been lifted, but many candidates passed up the chance to make last-ditch appeals to voters who filed into polling stations Tuesday to cast their ballots.

By: DALE WETZEL,Associated Press, Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A longstanding North Dakota law that banned campaigning on Election Day may have been lifted, but many candidates passed up the chance to make last-ditch appeals to voters who filed into polling stations Tuesday to cast their ballots.

A former North Dakota Republican Party chairman has challenged a state law that bans campaigning on Election Day, and a federal judge ruled last week that it can't be enforced Tuesday. In past elections, the law kept candidates from running Election Day ads and prompted them to take down campaign signs the night before.

John Grabinger, a Democratic state Senate candidate in Jamestown, was one of many candidates who said he would forswear campaigning Tuesday even though it was permitted.

"People have had enough of the campaign. We don't need more of it on Election Day," Grabinger said. "If you ain't got it done ... I don't think more campaigning on Election Day is going to make a whole lot of difference."

All eyes were on the U.S. Senate race between GOP U.S. Rep. Rick Berg and Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, as the Republicans were banking on Berg to take the seat held by retiring Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad for 26 years to help give them control of the chamber. Voters were also deciding races for U.S. House, governor, the Legislature and other statewide offices, as well as five ballot issues, including proposals to protect farming rights and impose harsher criminal penalties for cruelty to dogs, cats and horses.

North Dakota residents broke a record for early voting. Nearly 130,000 people had already voted before the polls opened on Election Day, Secretary of State Al Jaeger said. That broke the record set in 2008 by about 10,000 votes.

Jaeger said Tuesday that he expected voter turnout in the state to be similar to what it was in the presidential elections four years ago and eight years ago — about 64 percent or 65 percent of eligible voters.

There are about 36,000 more people of legal voting age in North Dakota than there were in 2008, because of an increase in population tied to the state's good economy.

"Even though our numbers go up, will the (turnout) percentage go up? That remains to be seen," Jaeger said.

The northwestern North Dakota town of Ray has seen its population increase from 500 to more than 1,200 in the past four years because of the oil boom in the region.

"It's been busy," City Auditor Kim Steffan said of Tuesday's voter turnout. "I know pretty much everybody in town and there have been more locals than oil workers. I expect a big rush when a lot of them (oil workers) get off work."

The long, contentious campaign for Senate drew to a close with a flurry of last-minute appearances by Berg and Heitkamp.

Heitkamp, a 57-year-old former state tax commissioner and attorney general, stumped the length of the Red River Valley on Monday, while Berg, a 53-year-old property developer from Fargo, toured a West Fargo engineering company and spoke to a civic club luncheon in Minot.

Berg has been trying to make history by becoming the first North Dakota congressman since 1960 to make the jump to the Senate after just one term in the House. He is competing with Heitkamp to replace Democrat Kent Conrad, who is retiring from the Senate after 26 years.

Much of Berg's campaign has focused on Heitkamp's support for Democrat President Barack Obama and his health care overhaul. The president did not carry heavily Republican North Dakota in 2008 and was not expected to this year.

Sol Wezelman, 94, a retired Bismarck insurance salesman, walked several blocks to the state Capitol early Tuesday to cast his vote for Berg.

"A vote for Heidi would have been a vote for Obama," he said.

Heitkamp voted with her 22-year-old son, Nathan Lange, at a bowling alley in Mandan on Tuesday morning.

"It feels real good," she said of her chances in the race.

Heitkamp has emphasized her independence from her party. Her campaign focused on local issues, such as expanding North Dakota's oil refining capacity, and she frequently criticized Obama on energy issues.

In the U.S. House race, Republican Kevin Cramer, a state public service commissioner, is running against Democrat Pam Gulleson, a former state lawmaker whose family owns a ranch near Rutland, for the chance to replace Berg. If Heitkamp and Gulleson win, they would become the first women elected to represent North Dakota in Washington.

Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple is seeking his first full term after succeeding former Gov. John Hoeven when Hoeven was elected to the Senate two years ago. Dalrymple is running against Democratic state Sen. Ryan Taylor, a Towner rancher and the state Senate's Democratic leader. The campaign has focused on how best to manage North Dakota's economic growth from a western oil boom. Dalrymple says he's done a good job of balancing spending on public works with tax cuts, while Taylor says more state money could go to help local governments deal with problems created by oil-related development.

North Dakota has not had a Democratic governor in 20 years.