North Dakota Senate: The race at a glance

The Week

Democrat Heidi Heitkamp has improbably turned a near-certain Republican pickup into a real race

When Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) announced he wasn't seeking a sixth term, the Democrats' hopes of hanging onto the seat, and maintaining control of the Senate, suffered a big blow. North Dakota Republicans picked as their candidate Rep. Rick Berg, a millionaire who had won a statewide race only two years ago. (North Dakota has only one congressional seat.) Democrats chose former North Dakota Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp. And surprisingly, in a race that apparently has as much to do with personality as policy, Heitkamp and Berg are running neck and neck. Here's what you should know:

THE CANDIDATES

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Rep. Rick Berg (R)
First-term congressman
Age: 53

Heidi Heitkamp (D)
Former state attorney general
Age: 56

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KEY ISSUES
The race has been full of policy differences — Berg is in hot water for the House failing to pass a farm bill, Heitkamp says Berg wants to privatize Social Security and voucherize Medicare, and Berg has been hammering Heitkamp for supporting ObamaCare and President Obama. Outside groups have poured about $5.6 million into the race, which is "a lot of money for a state of only 683,932 people," says Eliza Gray at The New Republic. But while people in conservative North Dakota generally agree with Berg's party, they like Heitkamp better. "In short, the campaign is a contest between North Dakota Nice and the national strategy of the Republican Party," says Jonathan Weisman in The New York Times. Berg is the favorite to win, but "with shoe leather, calibrated attacks, and likability — an intangible that goes far in North Dakota" — Heitkamp could create "one of the biggest surprises of the 2012 contests."

REAL CLEAR POLITICS POLL AVERAGE
Berg: 48.7 percent
Heitkamp: 43.7 percent
(See the full data here.)

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The tricky thing about judging the state of this race, say Adam Carlson and Mark Blumenthal at Huffington Post Pollster, is "there have literally been only 2 (!) public polls released." And based on anecdotal evidence and private polls — a Sept. 24-25 poll from DFM Research, commissioned by the state Democratic Party, has Heitkamp up by 4 points, 48 percent to 44 percent — it looks like a "very tight race." RCP rates it a "toss-up"; New York Times poll/stats maven Nate Silver rates it "Likely Republican."

CASH ON HAND (as of June 30): 
Berg: $2.2 million on hand; $4 million total
Heitkamp: $680,000 on hand; $2.1 million total

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DUELING ADS:

Rick Berg: "Trust"

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Heidi Heitkamp: "Twelve Years"

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More races at a glance:
Massachusetts Senate: Scott Brown vs. Elizabeth Warren
Nebraska Senate: Deb Fischer vs. Bob Kerrey

Read more political coverage at The Week's 2012 Election Center.

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