BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota's hard-fought U.S. Senate race between Republican Rep. Rick Berg and Heidi Heitkamp was too close to call early Tuesday, preventing Republicans from declaring a sweep in all four of the state's top races.
Republican Kevin Cramer defeated Democrat Pam Gulleson to replace Berg in the U.S. House, where Berg has served for just one term. Berg and Cramer both tried to turn the races into referendums on Democratic President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, which has been unpopular in North Dakota. But Heitkamp resisted, emphasizing her political independence and criticizing President Barack Obama on the energy issues important to an oil-rich state.
Heitkamp's strategy struck home with many voters, including Wendi Brandner, 42, who is studying at Bismarck State College to become a science teacher.
"It seems as though she has the people's welfare in mind with every decision she makes. It's not necessarily so much about voting with the party, it's more about voting with somebody you know you can trust to do what they say they're going to do," Brandner said.
Brandner, who grew up on a farm near New Rockford in northeastern North Dakota, also said she supported Heitkamp because "she's a woman, and she kind of grew up in the same manner as I grew up."
Heitkamp, a former North Dakota attorney general and tax commissioner, is a product of rural southeastern North Dakota.
Cramer, 51, a North Dakota public service commissioner from Bismarck, campaigned on his opposition to the new federal health care law. He advocates replacing it with provisions that he says will give consumers more control over their health care.
Gulleson, 54, of Rutland, endorsed some changes in the federal health care law but said she wouldn't repeal it.
The candidates also sparred over wind power subsidies, farm legislation and campaign donations. Cramer advocated eliminating a federal tax subsidy for the wind industry to help reduce federal budget deficits and debt. It is a sensitive topic in North Dakota, where the industry has blossomed in recent years.
Gulleson, a farmer and rancher, criticized House Republicans for failing to vote on a new farm bill before the old one expired at the end of September and said Cramer did not recognize the bill's importance to North Dakota farmers. She also criticized him for accepting campaign contributions from the coal industry and other interests regulated by the Public Service Commission.
Cramer's victory will leave a vacancy on the three-member commission that regulates utilities, coal mining, pipelines and grain elevators. It will be up to Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple to appoint someone to fill the two remaining years of his term.
Cramer's triumph came in his third U.S. House campaign. He lost to Democratic incumbent Earl Pomeroy in 1996 and 1998. He also had a setback two years ago, when Berg won the endorsement of GOP convention delegates to run against Pomeroy. Berg went on to defeat Pomeroy with 55 percent of the vote.
This year, Cramer bypassed the Republican state convention and allowed five Republican rivals to fight it out for delegates' endorsement. Their choice, Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk, lost to Cramer in the June Republican primary.
"Win or lose, there's very few things quite like running for Congress ... and I've been on both ends of it," Cramer told a crowd of supporters in Bismarck after Gulleson called to congratulate him. "My heart is so full of gratitude."
Gulleson said in a statement that she wished Cramer well "and am looking forward to the next chapter."
"To the thousands of North Dakotans who put the votes behind me in this race, volunteered and gave to my campaign, I will be eternally grateful," she said.