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In order for them to take control of the Senate this fall, Republicans would net a net pick up of four seats. And one seat they hope to flip to their side of the aisle is from North Dakota. Democrat Kent Conrad is retiring. North Dakota's congressional primary is next week. And Republican Congressman Rick Berg is the odds-on favorite to win the GOP nomination. If he does win, he'll presumably face Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, who is running unopposed in her primary.
NPR's Brian Naylor went to North Dakota for this report.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Standing on the deck of her comfortable home on the bank of the Missouri River in Mandan, North Dakota, Heidi Heitkamp points to a massive cottonwood tree growing by the river's edge in her backyard.
HEIDI HEITKAMP: It's an enormous tree and it's been there a long, long time. We always like to tell people we think Lewis and Clark stopped and maybe leaned against it to check out the river
NAYLOR: Heitkamp is a former state tax commissioner and attorney general. She lost a campaign for governor, but won a fight against breast cancer. Now 56, she's running for statewide office again, and airing ads like this one released this week, about a convicted rapist Heitkamp tried to keep locked up.
(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)
HEITKAMP: When he was released he raped a young girl. That's when they finally passed my law, one of the toughest in the country, keeping predators after their prison time. I'm Heidi Heitkamp and I approved this message because government should never wait to do what's right.
NAYLOR: Nowhere in the spot does Heitkamp mention her Democratic Party affiliation. And she's been highly critical of President Obama, questioning his energy policy, and criticizing him for opposing the Keystone Pipeline. Recently, she raised eyebrows in Washington when she said the president has failed. I asked her about that.
HEITKAMP: What I said is that the president was handed a test, which was uniting the country, and we're even more divided than we were I think in 2008. And that is a source of great concern to the American public.
NAYLOR: Heitkamp is distancing herself from the president, like several Democratic candidates running in parts of the country where Mr. Obama is unpopular. And it might be said that Heitkamp's views on the president have evolved. The conservative group Crossroads GPS has aired an ad in North Dakota, featuring a video clip it unearthed of Heitkamp from 2008.
(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Do you think Barack Obama has been amazing?
HEITKAMP: I think Barack Obama is going to be amazing and I think that we are on our way to a better United States.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Heidi Heitkamp supports ObamaCare, which costs over a trillion dollars, cuts 500 billion in Medicare spending...
NAYLOR: The Crossroads ad is aimed at helping Republican Congressman Rick Berg. Berg is a well-off real estate developer and long time state lawmaker, who's in his first term in North Dakota's only House seat. Now, he's running for the Senate.
REPRESENTATIVE RICK BERG: You know, that's where the problem is right now. I mean, if we want to change America, we've got to change the Senate. And we've had over 30 bipartisan bills that we've passed in the House that basically are sitting in the Senate and not being brought up, not being debated. So that has to change.
NAYLOR: Berg, 52, holds traditional Republican views; keep taxes low, cut spending, shrink government. We spoke after last weeks grim jobs numbers were posted, showing an uptick in the unemployment rate.
BERG: Brian, that's exactly why I'm running for the Senate. There is so much uncertainty in our country. Business out there doesn't know what the rules are going to be, what regulations are coming out. They don't know what the taxes are going to be.
NAYLOR: Berg wants Washington run more like North Dakota, which has the nation's lowest unemployment rate - three percent. That's largely due to the oil boom in the western part of the state.
If Heitkamp has her way, the Senate race will be fought over issues like Berg's support for the House budget plan, sponsored by Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, which she says would cut Medicare and something else important to North Dakota, farm subsidies.
University of North Dakota political science professor Mark Jendrysik says voters in the state are likely to be deluged with campaign ads in the coming months.
MARK JENDRYSIK: Well, I think you're going to see a lot of spending, a lot of money. I think there's going to be a veritable blizzard of advertising. Congressman Berg certainly has a lot of personal resources. I think Republicans have put a very high priority nationally on flipping this seat over. It's unclear to me if, you know, Ms. Heitkamp can raise that kind of money. And it's unclear if the national Democrats are really going to try to invest.
NAYLOR: The Heitkamp campaign points out it raised slightly more money than Berg in April and May, but Berg has a large advantage in cash on hand. Democrats have a poll showing their candidate ahead, but a newspaper poll has Berg up by seven points.
With President Obama at the top of the ticket in a reliably red state, North Dakota presents Democrats with one of their toughest Senate challenges and Republicans one of their best hopes this fall.
Brian Naylor, NPR News.
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