FARGO, N.D. (AP) — The grueling political showdown between Democrat Heidi Heitkamp and Republican Rick Berg in the hotly contested race for U.S. Senate ranked as North Dakota's top news story of 2012, according to a vote by Associated Press newspaper and broadcast members.
The race drew national attention as the GOP and Democratic parties wrestled for control of Congress. Berg had been an early favorite, but Heitkamp's perceived political independence and personal charm helped her eke out the win by a 3,000-vote margin.
North Dakotans, who hadn't seen a tight Senate race in more than a quarter of a century, couldn't escape the race. Residents saw an unprecedented level of political commercials and fielded sometimes unwelcome cellphone campaign calls, giving voters their first real taste of the unrestrained campaigning that has long been common in larger states.
Lloyd Omdahl, a longtime political science professor at the University of North Dakota and a former lieutenant governor, said it was the most significant outcome since Democrat Kent Conrad upset incumbent Mark Andrews in the 1986 Senate race.
"In the context of a very conservative trend in the state, the election of a Democrat under any circumstance was somewhat significant," Omdahl said.
"Politics are personal in North Dakota. You get to know people. Heidi was very likable and personable. Personable is important in North Dakota."
Omdahl said he believed residents were less than impressed with the amount of money spent on the race, but they were more bothered by the "negativism" on both sides and the style of the campaign.
State AP members selected the following stories as the remaining top 10 of the year:
2. Oil Record Set.
North Dakota set an oil-production record for the fifth consecutive year, putting the state on pace to best the previous mark by more than 50 million barrels. The state also passed Alaska to become the second-leading oil-producing state in the nation, trailing only Texas.
3. Fighting Sioux Farewell.
The decades-old debate over whether to keep the University of North Dakota's Fighting Sioux nickname finally seemed to come to an end as 68 percent of voters in the June primary agreed it was time to drop the nickname deemed "hostile and abusive" by the NCAA. In what appears to be a final nail in the nickname's casket, a group pushing a state constitutional amendment to save it missed a December deadline to resurrect the issue.
4. Reservation Shootings.
In a state with few slayings each year, North Dakota mourned a grandmother and three of her grandchildren, who were shot and killed in the woman's New Town home. Benjamin Shuster, 13, Julia Shuster, 10, and Luke Shuster, 6, were found dead alongside their grandmother, 64-year-old Martha Johnson. A fourth child, a 12-year-old boy, managed to survive by playing dead beneath the body of one of his brothers. The FBI, which is investigating the shootings because they happened on a reservation, has released few details, but law enforcement said that a "person of interest" killed himself later the same day in nearby Parshall.
5. Oil Royalties.
The state has reaped more than $1.1 billion since 2007 thanks to drilling activity — a particularly impressive tally considering that most North Dakota land is privately owned. With the oil money rolling in, Gov. Jack Dalrymple proposed a $12.8 billion budget for the next two years, with an 18 percent increase in general spending.
6. Charges in Four Slain.
A man previously charged with killing the mother of his child faces additional murder charges in the Minot-area deaths of three other people — all connected to the woman. Authorities leveled the additional murder charges against Somali-born Omar Mohamed Kalmio, 27, in May. He's accused of killing Sabrina Zephier, the 19-year-old mother of Kalmio's infant daughter; Zephier's 13-year-old brother, Dillon Zephier; her 38-year-old mother, Jolene Zephier, and her 22-year-old boyfriend, Jeremy Longie. The bodies were found the same day in two locations in January 2011.
7. Beulah Shooting.
A shooting in Beulah that authorities say was fueled by a dispute over money and drugs left one man dead and another injured. Mike Padilla died in the January shooting, while his brother was wounded. Two North Dakota men have been convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in the case.
8. Oil Impacts.
Along with enormous economic prosperity — and the lowest unemployment rate in the nation — the oil drilled in North Dakota's booming oil patch has also exacerbated problems in housing, infrastructure and traffic. Rent prices have soared, tripling in some areas to Manhattan-range prices and forcing some older residents to move to more affordable areas.
9. Petition Fraud.
Eleven people, including eight North Dakota State University football players, were charged in an election scandal that cost two ballot initiatives their place on the November ballot. The paid signature-getters were charged with faking signatures, pulling some straight from the phone book, on petitions submitted to the state. The signature-padding scheme kept North Dakota voters from weighing in on one of the country's most controversial issues: the legalization of medical marijuana use.
10. Election Day Campaigning.
A federal judge ruled that North Dakota's century-old ban on Election Day campaigning was a violation of political speech rights. Despite the ruling, many pulled their yard signs and refrained from campaigning anyway Nov. 6.
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