Heitkamp apparent winner in Senate race: Berg not concedingTrailing Democrat Heidi Heitkamp by less than 1 percentage point with all precincts reporting in North Dakota's closely watched U.S. Senate race, U.S. Rep. Rick Berg refused to concede the race pending the outcome of the official vote canvassing and left the door open to a possible recount.
By: by Mike Nowatzki and Ryan Johnson, Forum Communications, The Jamestown Sun
FARGO – Trailing Democrat Heidi Heitkamp by less than 1 percentage point with all precincts reporting in North Dakota's closely watched U.S. Senate race, U.S. Rep. Rick Berg refused to concede the race pending the outcome of the official vote canvassing and left the door open to a possible recount.
In complete and unofficial results, Heitkamp led her Republican opponent by 2,814 votes, just shy of 1 percentage point – 50.25 percent to 49.31 percent, a margin slim enough that Berg could ask for a recount.
Heitkamp took the stage at a Democratic-NPL rally in Bismarck to declare her likely victory in North Dakota's U.S. Senate race against Berg at 2 a.m., with one precinct still left to be counted.
She told a crowd of about 200 who stayed at the Ramkota Hotel six hours after polls closed at 8 p.m. that their phone calls, contributions and work throughout the campaign season were responsible for her apparent victory on Election Day, which would make her the state's first woman elected to the Senate.
"We said in the very beginning that this was going to be an election and not an auction; guess what we had tonight?" she said. "I'm here to tell you I have every confidence in the world that I'm going to be the next United States senator from North Dakota."
But that likely victory won't be confirmed until after the state's canvassing process verifies the close vote total, a process scheduled to start Friday.
Heitkamp spoke to the crowd for just four minutes, and said she planned to spend the rest of the night with family waiting for the final precinct to be reported.
Just minutes later, at 2:05 a.m., Berg left the Holiday Inn in Fargo, after nearly all of his supporters gathered earlier in the night had dispersed. He declined to speak to reporters who followed him into the parking lot and climbed into the back seat of a pickup driven by his wife.
Berg’s campaign spokesman issued the following statement shortly after 1:30 a.m.: "This is a very close election, which is why North Dakota has a process in place to properly count each ballot and officially certify the result. This canvassing process will certify the election and provide an official result. The Berg for Senate campaign will await the results of the canvassing process before making any other announcements regarding the status of the election," the statement said.
The canvassing process should be completed by Tuesday, Berg's campaign stated.
Both candidates watched the results in private rooms in the hotels hosting their respective election parties for most of the evening.
Heitkamp spokesman Brandon Lorenz said the campaign remained “cautiously optimistic” shortly before 11 p.m., when preliminary results showed the Democrat with a slight lead over Berg.
“We knew this was going to be a close race going into tonight,” he said.
The previously festive mood among Berg supporters at Fargo’s Holiday Inn had quieted considerably by midnight, as about 80 people remaining in the Grand Hall quietly watched presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s concession speech.
“It’s getting to be a steeper climb as the evening goes on,” Stan Stein, North Dakota Republican Party chairman, said shortly before 12:30 a.m.
With the race so close, talk turned to a possible recount. A Heitkamp win by a margin of less than one-half of 1 percent would have triggered an automatic recount under state guidelines. Berg also could demand a recount if the margin of victory were less than 2 percent.
“I would say after you sit down and study the figures, it might be a possibility,” Stein said.
Republicans felt Berg needed to be within 4 to 6 percentage points of Heitkamp in Cass County to win the election, Stein said, but the spread ended up wider than that. With all precincts reporting, Heitkamp carried 57 percent of the vote in Cass County and 56 percent in Grand Forks County, while Berg captured 55 percent of the vote in both Burleigh and Ward counties, home to Bismarck and Minot, respectively.
Thirty-three of the Senate’s 100 seats were up for grabs Tuesday, and North Dakota had one of several close contests Republicans hoped would result in a win to help them take control of the Senate.
The GOP needed to pick up four seats to seize a Senate majority if President Barack Obama won a second term, or three seats if challenger Mitt Romney won the presidency.
Shortly before 10:30 p.m. – just as President Barack Obama was declared the winner in his re-election bid – U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, who campaigned for Berg with hopes he could join him in the Senate, said he believed Berg could pick up more votes in western North Dakota and still win.
“Rick and I had a great relationship working together at the state level, focusing on the issues that really got our state going, and it’s my belief that that’s the same approach we need in Washington, D.C.,” Hoeven said.
Hoeven, who defeated Heitkamp in the race for North Dakota governor in 2000, said he also could work effectively with her if she wins.
“It’s important we work in a bipartisan way. That’s absolutely what we’ll do, and I have a track record of being able to reach across the aisle, and I’m going to continue to do that whether it’s Heidi or other Democrats,” he said.
Several statewide polls conducted in October suggested it could be the state’s closest U.S. Senate race since 1986, when Democrat Kent Conrad topped Republican incumbent Sen. Mark Andrews by slightly more than 2,000 votes, 50 percent to 49 percent. But most independent polling had shown at least a small lead for Berg.
Conrad surprised many on Jan. 18, 2011, when he announced his retirement from the Senate after 25 years.
Victories on Tuesday by Berg and U.S. House candidate Kevin Cramer, who had led in the polls against Democrat Pam Gulleson, would have given North Dakota its first all-GOP congressional delegation since the 1950s, when the state still had two House seats.
Of the 319,908 votes reported statewide, Berg received 157,758 votes to Heitkamp’s 160,752.
Berg ran on a platform that stressed his business experience, pledging to stop over-regulation of the economy, repeal Obamacare and reduce federal spending and debt.
Heitkamp vowed to work across party lines to cut government spending, balance the budget and get the economy back on track, with a focus on boosting energy production.
But it was negative advertising that largely defined the campaigns, which spent more than $8.7 million – nearly $4.7 million by Berg and $4.1 million by Heitkamp – on the race through Oct. 17, according to the most recent figures available through the Federal Election Commission.
Outside groups dumped millions more into the race, with Berg supporters spending more than $9.1 million and Heitkamp supporters more than $6.9 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Both candidates made a final statewide push for voters. Heitkamp went on a five-day “Bring It Home, Heidi” bus tour that ended Monday. Berg traveled across the state last week during his “Drive to Restore the American Dream” tour.
Berg, 53, entered the real estate business in 1981 and was a co-founder of Goldmark Schlossman Commercial Real Estate in Fargo. He served as its senior vice president until selling his ownership in the company last year.
Berg also served in the North Dakota Legislature from 1984 to 2009, including six years as House majority leader. He won his first term in the U.S. House in 2010 with a 10-point victory over longtime incumbent Democrat Earl Pomeroy.
Heitkamp, 57, was North Dakota’s attorney general from 1993 to 2000 and state tax commissioner from 1986 to 1992. She also served as counsel for the state Tax Commissioner’s Office from 1981 to 1986 and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from 1980 to 1981. She has been a director at Dakota Gasification Co. since 2001.
U.S. senators serve six-year terms and receive an annual salary of $174,000.