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Heitkamp, Cramer campaigns hit stride in North Dakota

Democratic donkey and Republican elephant butting heads. Vector illustration.

GRAND FORKS — In case you haven't noticed, there's a Senate race in North Dakota.

Incumbent Democrat Heidi Heitkamp and her challenger, Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer, have been coming through the television, through the phone and the computer screen, blaring out of the radio and splashed — in some cases with the help of President Donald Trump — across the state's newspaper pages. The candidates are literally walking door to door. In person or from afar, their multimillion-dollar spectacle demands to be let in.

That full-court press takes a lot of work, and not just from the candidates themselves. Both campaigns are bolstered by squadrons of supporters — staff and volunteer alike — and it's their efforts that make the entire apparatus work. Members of past campaigns often describe the experience as a crucible of phone calls, door-knocking and message-building to keep candidates moving through November. This year is no different.

"Aside from Labor Day, the last day I had off was the Fourth of July," said Laura Dronen, regional field director for the state Democratic-NPL's coordinated campaign, which supports candidates up and down the party's ticket. She clarified that, yes, she does mean Saturdays and Sundays, too. She's part of a larger party machine to drive voter interest, which has made thousands upon thousands of calls and knocks on doors.

State GOP workers report a similarly robust outreach effort, and Jake Blum, the Cramer campaign's deputy communications director, summed it up succinctly.

"A staffer's day never truly ends," he said in an emailed statement from the campaign. "We do what we have to do to get the job done ... every day."

And with summer's passing, both campaigns enter a period of dramatic importance. There is less of an emphasis on fundraising, and more on seeing the fight through, one former candidate said. There's also a deep sense of urgency to get out the message, because, according to former Gov. Ed Schafer, now is when it really counts.

"The campaigning to date has generally, or mostly, been 'Heidi Heitkamp hates veterans, Kevin Cramer hates people with disabilities' or whatever. ... It really hasn't given (the public) the opportunity to build a philosophical and directional contrast to the two candidates," Schafer said. "You kind of get all that junky stuff out over the summer, and pick up what you can as far as the electorate. But come Labor Day, now it's serious. Now you have to get down to work."

Matt Pearce worked with the Democratic-NPL in 2010 to support former Rep. Earl Pomeroy, a Democrat who lost to now-state GOP Chairman Rick Berg. He recalls arriving at his office between 9 and 10 a.m. and "you know you're not going to leave until nine that night."

"It teaches you a lot about yourself. It teaches you a lot about your work ethic," recalled Pearce, who now works for a government affairs firm in Washington. "There's really no silver bullet. You have to pick up the phone, dial the next number, pick up the phone, dial the next number. It's the same thing with knocking on doors. You knock on 100 doors, you might be talking to 10 people."

Pomeroy, who served for nearly two decades prior to the 2010 race, described busy campaigns that have only gotten more intense as time and telecommunications have progressed. Now, following a pre-breakfast planning meeting to start a lengthy day on the trail, candidates are able to take work on the road as they bounce from stop to stop.

"Personally, I would find these post-Labor Day weeks especially ... to be a very intense experience," Pomeroy said. "Virtually every waking moment is scheduled. And then the sleeping moments, you're thinking about the campaigns also. It's all campaign all the time for those seeking office right now, and the more competitive the race is, the more intense the experience."

In that sense, the North Dakota race has been anything but dull. President Trump has visited North Dakota twice this year to back Cramer.

RealClear Politics rates the race a toss-up; CNN recently rated the race "lean GOP," but had previously called it a toss-up as well. As a result, the race is expected to be among the most historically contentious in the state's history.

Not all campaigns are created equal, of course. Tracy Potter, the Democrat who ran against then-Gov. John Hoeven, laughs as he remembers the steep challenge ahead. He joked that he was running against the most popular state executive in the country and that, unfortunately, he couldn't stump for "John Hoeven for Governor." But despite the "quixotic" mission in front of him, Potter said he stayed focused on hitting the trail. He made speeches throughout the state — even if they weren't always well-followed.

"In one case, no one showed up — only a dog came to my speech at Fort Yates," Potter recalls. "And he left halfway through."

Besides North Dakota's unusual amount of national attention, the march of technology is making this election, and others around the country, historic in other ways. Social media increasingly shapes messaging efforts as never before. So, too, does the prevalence of cellphones, which are chipping away at polling or outreach that might otherwise rely on landlines. Pearce points out that if a Washington resident wants to help a North Dakota candidate, there are now easy tools to help them make calls and track responses from afar.

But Secretary of State Al Jaeger, running for re-election this fall — after decades in office — said that just as much has stayed the same.

"The general campaigning — when we started in 1992, we did the same thing," he said. "We did parades; we did community events. And in 2018, guess what? We're still doing the same thing."

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