Why you should care

Because Heidi Heitkamp is badly losing in North Dakota, while Jon Tester in Montana seems safe. 

Montana and North Dakota are next-door neighbors. But for two incumbent Democrats running in heated Senate campaigns, they might as well be worlds apart. To the west, you have the six-foot, 300-pound Jon Tester, an organic farmer and butcher who lost three fingers to a childhood meat-grinding accident and whose campaign recently bragged that he had shot “hundreds” of cows and hogs in his lifetime. To the east, you have Heidi Heitkamp, a former attorney for the Environmental Protection Agency who led the Roughrider State’s fight against Big Tobacco in the ’90s and previously served as attorney general.

Despite both being Great Plains states, their waves of grain are of decidedly different political hues. That fact was highlighted this week in OZY’s exclusive election model in partnership with Republican data firm 0ptimus, which showed North Dakota shift 15.5 percentage points toward Heitkamp’s GOP opponent, U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer. That change happened after two polls showed Heitkamp trailing by double digits, leaving her only a 29.5 percent chance of winning re-election according to our model. Meanwhile, Tester remains strong, still ahead by an average of 3 percentage points in recent polls and boasting a 73.5 percent chance of prevailing in November.

What accounts for the difference? Demographically, the two states appear very similar: Both North Dakota and Montana are about 90 percent White and 6 percent Native American, according to the 2010 census. Economically, agriculture and mining are major industries in both states. They share a love for guns, ranching and open skies, but North Dakota loves Donald Trump considerably more: Trump got 64 percent of the vote there in 2016, compared to 56.5 percent in Montana.

Heitkamp is also a good politician, but she hasn’t had the same length of time [as Tester] to build her own brand and niche.

Jeremy Johnson, political science professor at Carroll College

More importantly, Heitkamp is a first-term incumbent, barely squeaking out victory by a few thousand votes when she won the closet Senate race in the country in 2012. Meanwhile, Tester, often seen returning to his tractor and farm near Big Sandy, Montana, has won twice — including a 4-point triumph in 2012 as Barack Obama lost the state by double digits. While he mostly votes with Democrats, he has bucked his party by opposing the first Obama-led DREAM Act and helping Republicans pass a loosening of banking regulations last year, which he said would help small banks in Montana.

He actively courts veterans who would perhaps lean conservative otherwise, leading on issues such as Veterans Affairs hospitals and reform of the beleaguered department. Notably, as the top Democrat on the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, he opposed Trump’s nomination of White House physician Ronny Jackson as VA secretary — which led to a Trump tweet telling Tester he should resign. (Jackson withdrew his nomination after reports surfaced of his bad temper, improper distribution of medication and crashing a government vehicle while intoxicated.)

In the face of millions of dollars in attack ads and Trump visiting the state to campaign against him, Tester has proven durable. “There is a folksiness,” to the profile Tester portrays, says Jeremy Johnson, a political science professor at Carroll College in Helena, Montana. ”He’s as strong as any senator in the country at developing his own brand,” Johnson adds. “Heitkamp is also a good politician, but she hasn’t had the same length of time to build her own brand and niche.”

In addition, Tester foe and Montana state auditor Matt Rosendale “has less visibility” than Heitkamp’s challenger, Cramer, who is North Dakota’s sole congressman, says 0ptimus data scientist Alex Alduncin. Tester supporters have painted Rosendale as being an East Coast carpetbagger, a real estate developer who moved to the Big Sky State from Maryland just 15 years ago. By contrast, says Tester spokesman Chris Meagher, the senator is “someone who understands rural America, having lived there his entire life, whether that’s access to health care or the need for broadband.”

Meanwhile, Heitkamp has tried to seize upon Cramer’s problematic statements, including a recent interview in which Cramer called #MeToo “a movement toward victimization.” In Heitkamp’s emotional response to the New York Times, she revealed that her mother was a victim of sexual assault. Both Heitkamp and Tester voted against the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, but Heitkamp seems to have incurred greater risk for her decision. North Dakota is now the Senate seat most likely to change parties, according to the OZY/0ptimus model.

That’s not to say Tester is safe. The Senate Leadership Fund, a Super PAC allied with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, recently booked $1 million worth of television ads for the week of October 23, according to Politico — a sign Republicans spy an opportunity to turn the tide in the closing weeks.

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