WDAY: The News Leader

Published November 07, 2012, 12:50 PM

Democrat Heitkamp wins Senate race in North Dakota

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — Democrat Heidi Heitkamp averted a Republican sweep in North Dakota's top races with a narrow defeat of Republican Rep. Rick Berg in the U.S. Senate race.

By: DALE WETZEL,Associated Press DAVE KOLPACK,Associated Press, Associated Press

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — Democrat Heidi Heitkamp averted a Republican sweep in North Dakota's top races with a narrow defeat of Republican Rep. Rick Berg in the U.S. Senate race.

Heitkamp won the race by fewer than 3,000 votes, and Berg could have asked for a recount.

Instead, he conceded the race Wednesday with a qualifier: He was stepping aside barring any unforeseen circumstances with the state canvasing board that certifies the race results.

"But basically," he said, pausing to regain his composure as he spoke to a room full of supporters in Fargo, "with that acknowledgement of the circumstances, I just want to be clear I want to concede the election to Heidi Heitkamp."

Berg said he trusted the state's auditors, who had been standing by their vote tallies.

He had been expected to win the race, and Republicans had counted on his victory in their failed attempt to take control of the Senate.

Heitkamp pulled off a win in heavily Republican North Dakota by emphasizing her independence from her party. She 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.

Allen Marler, 74, a retired farmer who lives in Rogers, said Wednesday that he voted for Berg but he thought Heitkamp would do a good job. In fact, he added, Heitkamp might have had a shot to become governor in 2000 if her campaign hadn't been sidelined as she battled breast cancer. She later recovered.

"I usually vote Republican, so I voted for Berg, but really, I was undecided," Marler said. "Heidi will do a good job. She's very energetic and she'll do a good job because she's already done good things for North Dakota before."

Marler also couldn't understand why Berg hadn't conceded to Heitkamp on Tuesday. The 3,000-vote gap isn't that slim by North Dakota standards, he said.

The campaign was the most expensive Senate race in state history, with the candidates spending more than $8 million combined. Outside groups poured in millions more for television advertising and mailings on behalf of both candidates.

While voters like Marler criticized the negative tone of the race, Berg said he would not change anything about his campaign.

"Looking back at it, I feel like we left it all out on the field," he said.

Heitkamp, a 57-year-old Mandan attorney who has served as North Dakota's attorney general and tax commissioner, issued a statement thanking Berg for his public service and "being a part of our great democratic process."

"I made this promise to every North Dakotan during the campaign and I want to make it again today: I will work as hard as I can to be a senator for each and every one of you," she said.

Her whereabouts were a mystery. Campaign workers said she was taking the day off, and she was not at her headquarters or home, although workers gathered there for a celebratory lunch. The workers said she would not comment further on the race or her plans until Thursday.

Heitkamp is 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.

Heitkamp's victory is the capstone of a political career that began in 1984, when she began the first of six statewide campaigns with an unsuccessful run for state auditor. She served as tax commissioner and attorney general before losing her run for governor in 2000.

She later led two successful ballot initiatives, one requiring greater state spending to fight tobacco use and another making it more difficult for governments to forcibly acquire property for economic development projects.

Berg was elected to the U.S. House two years ago in a wave of Republican victories. Five months later, he began campaigning for the Senate in an attempt to become the first North Dakota congressman to make the jump after just one term since Democrat Quentin Burdick in 1960. He will be replaced in the U.S. House by Republican Kevin Cramer, a public service commissioner who won in his third big for Congress.