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North Dakota is small in terms of population, but its Senate race this fall is attracting major attention. Incumbent Heidi Heitkamp, the only high-level Democratic official left in the state, faces a close contest with Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer, an enthusiastic supporter of President Trump. For the state's farmers, the choice may amount to a referendum on the president's trade war with China.
Four weeks from tonight, the "NewsHour" political team will join me here at this desk to cover the midterm elections, when we will find out which party controls the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate for the next few years.
One of the most closely watched races is in North Dakota, which many Republicans think holds their best shot at taking over a Senate seat now held by a Democrat.
I traveled there this past weekend for a close-up look.
The place to be this Sunday in Southeastern North Dakota was the annual today Uffda Day Festival in tiny Rutland, celebrating its Scandinavian roots. Skiing on grass, a kids tractor race, and the highlight, a parade, attracted young and old and the two candidates in one of the most competitive races for a U.S. Senate seat this fall.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.:
Don't you notice all the Norwegian flags? This is a Norwegian town.
Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, the only high-level member of her party left in a state that for years sent mostly Democrats to Washington, is in the bullseye of a Republican drive to hang onto its majority in the U.S. Senate and, as a bonus, sweep Democrats out of power here.
Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.:
They just couldn't keep up with where North Dakota was going. And Senator Heitkamp may be the last casualty. I don't know.
Taking her on his Republican Kevin Kramer, North Dakota's only member of the U.S. House and an enthusiastic backer of President Trump.
All I can say is, Mr. President, thank you for not forgetting us.
Who won here by 36-point margin two years ago.
Only two states in the country have a smaller population than North Dakota. And it's fair to say most Americans are familiar with the name of its major city only because of a movie. Even so, it is this state that is poised to be the biggest determinant this fall in whether Democrats have a chance of retaking control of the U.S. Senate.
Heitkamp, like other red state Democrats up for reelection this year, often reminds voters of her independence, how much he works across party lines.
There are too many people who only vote on one side 100 percent of the time, and that will never be me.
In her case, she's not only voted with President Trump more than half the time. She was one of a tiny number of Democrats mentioned for a job in his administration.
But when the Brett Kavanaugh nomination to the Supreme Court came up, she voted against, a move sure to please her base voters.
This is an issue of conscience. This is an issue of judicial temperament. And taking this hyperpartisan executive branch, the hyperpartisan legislative branch, let's make a partisan court, I think that is absolutely the wrong direction.
She was concerned enough about how her vote would go over that she cut a paid ad about it.
First off, honestly, I don't think he told the truth. And even if he did, he showed himself to be too biased to be impartial.
As a House member, Cramer didn't have a vote, but was for Kavanaugh from the start. He had to clarify his views after he told a reporter that nothing happened to Blasey Ford.
I don't start with the premise that it really did happen. That's — I think her allegations, if they were true, were obviously serious. Clearly, she has had something very traumatic happen to her. I don't know what it is.
Two women voters we spoke to in Fargo this weekend told us their view is closer to Cramer's.
I do question the timing. And I wonder about kind of the political motive there.
I have a hard time with something that happened so long ago. Like, we have all been young and dumb and made mistakes in the past.
But one person in the crowd at Sunday's festivities in Rutland said Heitkamp handled it just right.
Couldn't be more proud of her. That took a lot of guts.
So did Vanessa Kummer, whom we met at her family's farm near Colfax.
It probably strengthens my ideal of what Heidi stands for, because, whether he was guilty or not, he proved himself to be not judicial and very partisan.
So the trucks come in down the driveway and park right here.
Right. Come right here?
But Ms. Kummer has an even stronger reason to support Heitkamp, her opposition to President Trump's get-tough trade policy toward China, which China responded to by ending its purchase of U.S. soybeans, one of North Dakota's main farm exports. The result has been drastic losses for soybean farmers here.
Well, it's basically been shut down for us.
Kummer is but one of tens of thousands of soybean farmers in North Dakota who are feeling the effects of the trade war with China.
The combine will come across, and it will cut it right here.
Sarah Lovas and her husband oversee 8,000 acres in Hillsboro, half of which are soybeans.
We're really feeling the effects here in North Dakota. Soybeans has become a very big crap for us here in this geography and on our own farm. China, a major customer of ours. We miss having the opportunity to sell our beans to them. They have been great customers over the years.
Lovas estimated their losses alone could run to almost $200,000 this year, meaning they can't grow their business, as they had planned.
We were actually thinking about getting another combine earlier this year. Well, the soybean price started plummeting in May and June, and we didn't do that, because we didn't think we had enough money to go and invest in that extra equipment.
Senator Heitkamp is making the China trade dispute a centerpiece of her campaign.
You can spend 30 years getting a market and one year losing it. We already know that China's taking their — their market down from 20 percent in terms of what they feed their hogs down to 12 percent.
Congressman Cramer also says that he was against the idea of these tariffs.
Oh, that's convenient, isn't it? Oh, I'm against tariffs, but it's OK if the president imposes them? That's the kind of double-talk that you get in Washington, D.C., but doesn't work so well in North Dakota.
Cramer says, now that President Trump has moved against the Chinese, the U.S. cannot back down.
If we don't stick to our guns now, China can break the United States, which is what some politicians seem to be cheering for. Then we will never be able to negotiate a good deal with China again.
Lovas, who identifies as conservative, says she hasn't decided how she's voting in November, but has a clear message for everyone in Washington.
What I am hoping is that all of our elected officials remember that we, as farmers, exist out here. I think there's concern for farmers both dealing with the Democrats and the Republicans that, hey, don't — don't forget us. We're here.
Vanessa Kummer, on the other hand, places blame squarely on President Trump and the Republicans who support him.
I support Heidi Heitkamp 100 percent, because she has right from the beginning understood that this was going to be difficult for farmers, while Cramer said farmers just need to hold on and don't have hysteria ruling the day.
Well, it's not hysteria. It is loss of money. It's profit loss. And it could mean losing some farmers in our area.
Some voters we met in Rutland suggest the farmers' concerns may be exaggerated.
They have got grain bins.
Meaning they have got — they can last through this?
They have got storage, yes.
And so you don't think it's hurting them?
A farm equipment operator, Brian Blado (ph), says he's for Cramer all the way.
A single dad, two girls, work more in the last year, and made more money this year than I have in years prior for a long time.
You got the freedom to do whatever you want. He's not going to encroach on your freedoms.
And you think Senator Heitkamp believes in that?
Yes, I do.
What's your opinion of President Trump?
He is awesome.
In what way? What has he done that you like?
He has made America great again.
Farmer Vanessa Kummer disagrees.
I feel like he really likes things to be in confusion, and he likes just throwing things up in the air, and then not taking credit for if it doesn't work out and taking credit for everything that is going good.
Views of President Trump, and the fact that so many voters here like him a lot, are complicating this race for Heitkamp.
President Donald Trump:
We need Kevin Cramer to replace liberal Democrat Heidi Heitkamp.
Heitkamp is banking, however, that North Dakotans will continue to see her as one of them, working with the president at times, but independent of both parties.
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Broadcast journalist Judy Woodruff is the anchor and managing editor of the PBS NewsHour. She has covered politics and other news for five decades at NBC, CNN and PBS.
Rachel Wellford is a general assignment producer for PBS NewsHour.
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