North Dakota Dominos

Aug. 26, 2015 — Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s (R) semi-surprising announcement Monday that he is not going to seek a second full term is launching North Dakota politicos into motion. The biggest question surrounds US Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D), and whether she will enter what is now an open race for governor.

Though North Dakota has become a solidly Republican state, Heitkamp successfully won her Senate seat in 2012 nipping then-at-large Rep. Rick Berg (R), 50-49 percent. But, the governor’s office is what drives her political desire. From her post as the state’s two-term attorney general, Heitkamp ran for ND’s top office in 2000, but a diagnosis of breast cancer slowed her ability to compete. She fell to current Republican Sen. John Hoeven (55-45 percent) for what would be his first of three terms as the state’s chief executive.

Earlier in the year, speculation began growing that Sen. Heitkamp was considering challenging Gov. Dalrymple. Even though she would have been a distinct underdog, her proven ability to win difficult races in a conservative state is established. At the very least, she would have been a formidable candidate and not have had to risk her Senate seat.

Now, in an open configuration, the chances of her running for the state post increase. If so, we may see a re-match of the 2012 statewide race because former Rep. Berg is also expressing interest in running for governor.

A Heitkamp gubernatorial campaign causes problems for both parties. First, it puts the governor’s mansion in play, something Republicans would obviously prefer to avoid. The party’s cost to hold the position increases many times if Sen. Heitkamp is the Democratic nominee.

But, the national Democrats would have trouble, too. When it first came to the light that the senator was seriously considering running for governor in 2016, the Republican dominated legislature and Gov. Dalrymple enacted legislation that changes the succession procedure if a US Senate vacancy occurs.

Instead of filling the position by gubernatorial appointment for purposes of serving the remaining time before the next regular election, an immediate special election will now be called. This means, should Heitkamp be elected governor, she would not be able to name her own successor, thus robbing the Democrats of their ability to ensure that the Senate seat stays under party control. Rather, a special vote would quickly ensue, and Republicans would be heavily favored to convert the seat.

Since the 2016 regular Senate elections are projected to be close and Democrats have some chance of re-claiming the majority they lost in 2014, there is a scenario where a Republican 2017 North Dakota special election victory could conceivably flip control to the GOP. Thus, the ramifications surrounding Sen. Heitkamp’s future decision whether to become a gubernatorial candidate are highly significant for all concerned.

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