Heidi Heitkamp’s stunning Senate victory in North Dakota might just be the most surprising upset of all this cycle. A well-liked figure with an outgoing campaign style, a hard-working campaign that criss-crossed the large but sparsely-populated state, and some great TV ads, Heitkamp ran more than 20 points ahead of President Obama to win by a mere 3,000 votes.
Heitkamp’s key decision was to run in the first place. She was in a red state in a year that seemingly favored the Republicans, at a time when the Citizens United decision had opened up the special interest floodgates for outside attacks. She had not held public office in North Dakota for a decade, and her opponent, Rep. Rick Berg, was the House incumbent in a statewide at-large seat. Finally, because President Obama did not target the state, she had to build her get-out-the-vote infrastructure largely by herself to overcome presidential challenger Mitt Romney’s huge victory margin.
She hammered Berg for supporting privatizing Social Security and attacked Republicans for jeopardizing Medicare. Her ads told personal stories of North Dakotans who had to depend on Medicare and Social Security to survive – while she promised to protect both programs. At the same time, she portrayed Berg as a “multimillionaire landlord” who would fight for tax cuts for the wealthy while placing all of the burden of spending cuts on seniors and the economically vulnerable. Heitkamp also ran as an unabashed “fair trader,” and criticized the Republicans for their allegiance to “free trade” deals that ship jobs overseas.
Heitkamp campaigned as a class warrior with class. She showed a funny, engaging, down-to-earth personality. One of her ads is a good example of how that came through: In “Batting Cage,” she is hitting baseballs in a batting cage–quite well!–and at the end of the ad, she winks at the viewers.
One of her slogans, the “North Dakota Way,” contrasted well with Rep. Berg’s “D.C. Way” of doing things, and she built a website () to emphasize how Berg’s campaign statements on rural health care, support for farmers, Medicare and federal protection for women against violence were at odds with the votes he cast with the Republican caucus.