Some things to watch Tuesday in N.D. U.S. Senate race

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Some things to watch as election day unfolds Tuesday in North Dakota:

Heidi Heitkamp would very much like to see this map late Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning. If she did, it means she will be returning to the U.S. Senate for six more years.

It's unlikely she will see this map, however. This is the North Dakota county-by-county election map from the 2012 U.S. Senate race when she defeated Rick Berg by about 3,000 votes. The blue indicates counties in which she received the majority of votes. Red indicates counties Berg won.

It's much more likely that there will be many more red counties, especially in the eastern part of the state. Heitkamp will likely carry Cass and Grand Forks counties, perhaps by hefty margins. The question will be: How many other counties in the east can she carry? Any?

This is one phenomenon of the Donald Trump era in American politics. Rural voters have jumped on the Trump bandwagon and aren't in any mood to jump off. It explains why Heitkamp's opponent, Republican Kevin Cramer, tied his fortunes directly to Trump and showed no willingness to jump off. His side polls, too, and they know of Trump's popularity in rural counties.

The question for Heitkamp is whether she can find enough votes in Cass and Grand Forks (and perhaps even Burleigh) counties to overcome the red wave that has swept North Dakota. Are there enough votes on the Native American reservations to overcome the rural voters who voted for Heitkamp in 2012 but are going with Cramer in 2018?

It's a very difficult map for the incumbent, which the Heitkamp and her campaign have acknowledged all along.

The path to a Heitkamp victory is extremely narrow, even more than in 2012, but her campaign believes it is still doable. It'd be a miraculous finish. She needs something to break her way that, at this point, is unexpected and unknowable.

A couple of possibilities:

  • Young people turn out in unprecedented numbers, in part because of Measure 3 (recreational marijuana) being on the statewide ballot, and they vote overwhelmingly for Heitkamp. Some Democratic information being pushed out Monday indicates young people are more engaged this cycle, but will it be enough?
  • Democratic optimism exceeds expectations. The North Dakota Dem-NPL Party is generally pretty downtrodden given election results statewide for the last 20 years, but if Democrats feel they have to turn out to push their candidate across the line -- and Republicans feel overly comfortable that Cramer is going to win -- that might move the needle just enough.
  • Native American turnout is through the roof because of get-out-the-vote efforts after the state put up barriers to Indians voting. The reservation votes helped push Heitkamp to victory and there are major efforts occurring on the reservations the last couple of weeks to assure Native Americans have the proper ID and have a way to get to the polls. One thing is for sure: None of the statewide polling that's been released publicly includes Native Americans. It's just too hard to poll the reservations. A good Native American turnout could give Heitkamp a 1.5 to 2 percent swing, which in a tight race could make a difference. The question is how tight the race will be. If the race is a 4-point race and the Native American vote is worth 2 points, that could get it to a 2-point race. But if Cramer has an 8-point advantage, the reservation vote will make no difference in the final outcome.
  • Weather. Bad weather always suppresses turnout, especially if one side believes it has the race in the bag. Voters will ask, "Why go out in crummy weather when my vote isn't going to make a difference anyway?" Tuesday's forecast is for mid-30s and some snow in the Fargo area. The worse the weather is, the more it will favor Heitkamp.

Here's the deal: If the Heitkamp campaign is banking on chilly, possibly snowy weather to win the election, they are in trouble. Typical November weather is not going to turn around a 6-point race or a 10-point race. But if it comes down to a day when every vote matters -- the weather, Native Americans, young people, Democratic enthusiasm maybe all add up to give Heitkamp a victory.

Something out of the ordinary has to happen, Heitkamp has to break the models somehow, an unforeseen factor needs to give her an unexpected advantage. If that happens, maybe she wins by a percentage point. If everything breaks against Heitkamp, maybe she loses by 10.

The bottom line is what we all knew back when Cramer first entered the race: Cramer has every advantage, Heitkamp has every disadvantage and getting to 51 percent will be a tough go for the Senator. It will be a monumental upset if she wins.

A couple of other statewide races to watch Tuesday:

  • Recreational marijuana (Measure 3). The public polling has been extreme on this topic. Supporters of recreational pot say they have polling show its approval over 50 percent. Opponents say it is going down in flames. My take is this: It will be very difficult for Measure 3 to get above 50 percent because pot is a generational thing. Young people see no issues with it, but the older you get the more likely you are to be opposed. By the time a person gets above 60, he or she is almost certainly not voting for recreational marijuana. And ... who is most likely to vote? Old people. My guess, and it's only that, is that Measure 3 is going down 65-35. (And that doesn't bode well for the Heitkamp campaign.)
  • Secretary of state. This is one statewide race, besides the Heitkamp race, that Democrats have a chance to win. It's only because of unique circumstances, but Dems don't care. Josh Boschee could find a way to a plurality in a three-way race, helped by the fact the other two candidates are on the ballot as independents and not Republicans. Incumbent Al Jaeger was added to the ballot after party-nominated Will Gardner dropped from the race after revelations he window-peeped at North Dakota State University years ago. Another conservative, Michael Coachman, is also on the ballot as an independent. If Jaeger and Coachman split the the Republican votes just the right way, or people who normally vote Republican leave that race blank because there isn't an "R" behind Jaeger's and Coachman's name, that benefits Boschee. Republican Party ID is so strong in North Dakota that if a candidate isn't identified with an "R," their chances of winning drop dramatically. That's Boschee's path to victory. He, and the Democrats, will take it. There's a chance the margin between the winner and the second-place finisher in this race will be tighter than the Heitkamp-Cramer race.

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