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Heitkamp wins US Senate seat over Berg by slight margin

BISMARCK -- With all but one of North Dakota's precincts reporting, former North Dakota attorney general Heidi Heitkamp held a razor-thin lead over U.S. Rep. Rick Berg for the state's open U.S. Senate seat on Tuesday, with the winner potentially determining the balance of power in the Senate.

In incomplete and unofficial results, Heitkamp led Berg, 50.3 percent to 49.2 percent with 425 of 426 precincts reporting.

Both candidates watched the results in private rooms in the hotels hosting their respective election parties, and with the race too close to call, neither had addressed their supporters as of 11:05 p.m.

Heitkamp spokesman Brandon Lorenz said the campaign remained "cautiously optimistic" shortly before 11 p.m., when preliminary results showed the Democrat with a slight lead over Berg.

"We knew this was going to be a close race going into tonight," he said.

Berg spokesman Chris Van Guilder said earlier the campaign was excited to watch the rest of the results come in. Berg was energized by the support he received as he crisscrossed the state during the last week of the campaign, Van Guilder said.

"In the past week or so, Rick has essentially gone around the state three times, and everywhere we go it's been encouraging," he said.

Thirty-three of the Senate's 100 seats were up for grabs Tuesday, and North Dakota had one of several close contests Republicans hoped would result in a win to help them take control of the Senate.

The GOP needed to pick up four seats to seize a Senate majority if President Barack Obama won a second term, or three seats if challenger Mitt Romney won the presidency.

Shortly before 10:30 p.m. -- just as President Barack Obama was declared the winner in his re-election bid - U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, who campaigned for Berg with hopes he could join him in the Senate, said he believed Berg could pick up more votes in western North Dakota and still win.

"Rick and I had a great relationship working together at the state level, focusing on the issues that really got our state going, and it's my belief that that's the same approach we need in Washington, D.C.," Hoeven said.

Hoeven, who defeated Heitkamp in the race for North Dakota governor in 2000, said he also could work effectively with her if she wins.

"It's important we work in a bipartisan way. That's absolutely what we'll do, and I have a track record of being able to reach across the aisle, and I'm going to continue to do that whether it's Heidi or other Democrats," he said.

Statewide polls conducted in October suggested it could be the state's closest U.S. Senate race since 1986, when Democrat Kent Conrad topped Republican incumbent Sen. Mark Andrews by slightly more than 2,000 votes, 50 percent to 49 percent.

Conrad surprised many on Jan. 18, 2011, when he announced his retirement from the Senate after 25 years.

Victories on Tuesday by Berg and U.S. House candidate Kevin Cramer, who had led in the polls against Democrat Pam Gulleson, would give North Dakota its first all-GOP con-gressional delegation since the 1950s, when the state still had two House seats.

A Heitkamp win would see her join Republican Sen. John Hoeven, who defeated her in the 2000 race for North Dakota governor. Hoeven attended Berg's election night party Tuesday after having campaigned for him in the race.

Of the 321,254 votes reported statewide by 12:50 a.m., Berg received 155,836 votes and Heitkamp received 159,392 votes. Berg ran on a platform that stressed his business experience, pledging to stop over-regulation of the economy, repeal Obamacare and reduce federal spending and debt.

Heitkamp vowed to work across party lines to cut government spending, balance the budget and get the economy back on track, with a focus on boosting energy production.

But it was negative advertising that largely defined the campaigns, with Republicans criticizing Heitkamp for supporting Obama and his Affordable Care Act and Berg taking fire for his alleged ties to Fargo-based Goldmark Property Management.

Combined, the two campaigns spent more than $8.7 million - nearly $4.7 million by Berg and $4.1 million by Heitkamp - on the race through

Oct. 17, according to the most recent figures available through the Federal Election Commission.

Outside groups dumped millions more into the race, with Berg supporters spending more than $9.1 million and Heitkamp supporters more than $6.9 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Both candidates made a final statewide push for voters. Heitkamp went on a five-day "Bring It Home, Heidi" bus tour that ended Monday. Berg traveled across the state last week during his "Drive to Restore the American Dream" tour.

Berg, 53, entered the real estate business in 1981 and was a co-founder of Goldmark Schlossman Commercial Real Estate in Fargo. He served as its senior vice president until selling his ownership in the company last year.

Berg also served in the North Dakota Legislature from 1984 to 2009, including six years as House majority leader. He won his first term in the U.S. House in 2010 with a 10-point victory over longtime incumbent Democrat Earl Pomeroy.

Heitkamp , 57, was North Dakota's attorney general from 1993 to 2000 and state tax commissioner from 1986 to 1992. She also served as counsel for the state Tax Commissioner's Office from 1981 to 1986 and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from 1980 to 1981. She has been a director at Dakota Gasification Co. since 2001.

U.S. senators serve six-year terms and receive an annual salary of $174,000.