Heidi Heitkamp is the junior Senator from North Dakota and Jon Tester the senior Senator from Montana. Heitkamp first squeaked out a victory in 2012 when he state was solidly voting for Mitt Romney while Jon Tester bested a well-known House member to retain his seat.
Both Montana and North Dakota are solidly red at the Presidential level. When Tester won his race with 49 percent Obama was only carrying 42 percent to the vote. Heitkamp arguably had a steeper hill to climb. While she won with 50.02 percent of the vote the President walked away with barely 39 percent. Apparently split ticket voting is not completely dead in our era of hyper-polarization.
But, context is important. Both Heitkamp and Tester have a long history in their states. Tester served in the Montana State Senate from 1997-2007 before being elected in 2006. Heitkamp served as Attorney General for 8 years before running unsuccessfully for Governor in 2000. Before that she served as the state Tax Commissioner. After her loss, she served as Director of the Dakota Gasification Company’s Great Plains Synfuels Plant.
Both Tester and Heitkamp are down to earth and speak to the sensibilities of their states and voters. Heitkamp and Tester both cultivated an image of being down-home and folksy and were excellent in one-on-one interactions with their constituents.
Republicans in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Illinois should take note. As bad as the Senate map looks for the GOP many of these Senators have a leg up on Tester and Heitkamp. They are running in light blue to blue states as opposed to a deeply red Montana or North Dakota.
Who challenged Heitkamp and Tester was important. In North Dakota, then Congressman Rick Berg ran against Heitkamp. Berg, who co-founded successful real estate firm Goldmark Property Management, served in the legislature for 2 decades before defeating Democratic Congressman Earl Pomeroy in 2010. That race was incredibly bitter and Berg entered his freshman year with low likability scores.
In Montana, Tester matched up against 5 term Congressman Denny Rehburg. Rehburg had served as the state’s Lt. Governor from 1991-1997 and lost a close Senate race in 1996 to Max Baucus. When Rehburg gave up his safe House seat to run against Tester it was seen as a major coup. But Rehburg, embroiled in a scandal of his own making, was hardly a strong candidate.
In Montana Tester ran against the President and his party on energy and the environment and successfully sidestepped the Obamacare debate. In North Dakota, Heitkamp distanced herself from the President on energy, taxes and the Keystone Pipeline.
In both cases tactics mattered. Berg aired ads in February and March to burnish his image but went dark due to cash issues until June. Meanwhile Heitkamp aired ads between March and June which helped innoculate her from later attacks. Democrats successfully attacked Berg for his management of his real estate firm, Goldmark, which had numerous complaints and allegations of violations from its tenants.
In Montana, the story was largely the same. While Rehburg never went dark during the campaign his team struggled to craft an effective message. Meanwhile, Tester’s spots were positive and painted a populist tone even conservatives could get behind. More importantly, he drove up Rehburg’s negatives and thus drove a large majority of the 6 percent of the vote to the Libertarian candidate in the race.
Republicans assumed it would be easy to tie Heitkamp and Tester to Obama. But they little ammo on either and were stuck with flawed candidates. The assumption undecided voters would go their way in the end was flawed. This was probably because Democrats painted Rehburg and Berg as unethical and uncaring.
Now, it should be mentioned, North Dakota and Montana are small states. This made it easier for the individual strength of both candidates to become manifest and the weaknesses of their opponents to shine through. Tester was a relatively young Senator and Heitkamp did not have a voting record to attack.
For blue-state Republicans this cycle, they may be as young in their tenures as Tester was, but their states are much larger. One-one-one contact is thus much harder to obtain.
Fortunately, these Republicans are facing opponents of with extensive voting records. Additionally, none of these blue-state Republicans had easy races in 2010 meaning they know how to run good campaigns.
Even better, almost every candidate has an issue to differentiate themselves from their party on. In Illinois, it is abortion and gay marriage. In Wisconsin, it is national security. In Pennsylvania it is guns and in New Hampshire it is on limiting carbon emissions. These stances allow Republicans to show their independence from the party to some degree.
The one thing these Republican Senators cannot control is how well Donald Trump does at the top of the ticket. The worse he does the harder their job becomes. But, the better he does the more likely they are to survive.
Elections can be won and lost at the margins so anything Republicans glean from Heitkamp and Tester will help. The question is whether it will be enough?