Heitkamp confident, Berg not conceding North Dakota raceFARGO, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota's most-watched campaign turned into an early-morning nail biter as Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp held onto an unofficial lead of fewer than 3,000 votes — a difference so small that The Associated Press did not call the race.
By: DALE WETZEL,Associated Press L.M. OTERO,Associated Press, Associated Press
FARGO, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota's most-watched campaign turned into an early-morning nail biter as Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp held onto an unofficial lead of fewer than 3,000 votes — a difference so small that The Associated Press did not call the race.
The margin was close enough that her opponent, Republican Rep. Rick Berg, can demand a recount, which he'd have to pay for. He declined to concede Wednesday, saying in a statement that he'd wait until the state counted each ballot and officially certified the result. That process could take a week.
As numbers trickled in after polls closed showing Heitkamp was doing well, the mood among Berg's supporters gathered at a Fargo hotel ballroom went from celebratory to funereal. Some expressed disappointment with North Dakota voters, and between about 10 p.m. and midnight the place cleared out, leaving only about 20 of Berg's most ardent backers.
Berg, who spent much of the night in an adjacent hotel meeting room, left without speaking to reporters.
The mood at Heitkamp's gathering in Bismarck was dramatically different. As votes began to showing that she had a shot to win, and later that she had an apparent lead, she was jubilant, clutching her mother in a tight hug.
The tight finish to the Senate contest threw a wrench into an otherwise predictable election, in which voters enjoying a robust economy fueled by western North Dakota's oil boom backed Republicans in the other top races. Republican Mitt Romney won the state's presidential race, Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple had an easy election and public service commissioner Kevin Cramer was chosen to replace Berg in the U.S. House.
Even Heitkamp's strong showing was something of a rejection of Democratic President Barack Obama: Heitkamp has been harshly critical of the president's energy policy, is pro-oil and supports gun rights. Despite the Democratic label, many viewed the 57-year-old former state tax commissioner and attorney general as more of an independent than a Democrat.
"I think she supports North Dakota better. She understands North Dakota and the way we live up here," said Willy Marler, 19, of Rogers, who voted for Mitt Romney as president but Heitkamp for Senate.
As numbers trickled in after polls closed showing Heitkamp was doing well, Berg's
A Heitkamp victory would mean the Senate seat stays in Democratic hands. Berg and Heitkamp were competing to succeed Democrat Kent Conrad, who is retiring after 26 years in office.
Only two years ago, the state's congressional delegation had been entirely Democratic. But then Berg defeated longtime Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy, and Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan retired and was replaced by Republican John Hoeven. Many predicted the entire delegation would be Republican after this election. The GOP had counted on a Berg victory as part of its failed effort to take control of the Senate.
If Heitkamp wins, she'll also be the first woman elected to represent North Dakota in either the U.S. Senate or House. Jocelyn Burdick briefly served in the Senate after her husband, Democrat Quentin Burdick, died in September 1992, but she was appointed by then-Democratic Gov. George Sinner.
Energy issues and the state's oil development were top issues in many North Dakota races. The state has risen from the nation's ninth-leading oil producer to No. 2 behind Texas in just six years, with the oil industry adding thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars to the state economy. It's put the state in a unique position, with a projected $1.6 billion in surplus money, while most states are drowning in debt.
While Berg had been considered the favorite in what would become the most expensive Senate race in state history, Heitkamp gained ground by focusing much of her campaign on local issues, including expanding North Dakota's oil refining capacity. The tide slowly turned, and Heitkamp, who was in her sixth statewide campaign and had strong personal popularity, seemed to attract voters who wanted someone more moderate in the post.
"I don't think we can trust (U.S. Senate candidate) Rick Berg to do what's best for North Dakota. I think he will do whatever the Republicans want him to do," said Sara Kincaid, a 34-year-old substitute teacher in Bismarck. "I think Heidi will do what's best for North Dakota and think she tends to be more independent and won't vote along party lines."