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Commentary: The most important figure in ND's 2018 Senate race may be Doug Burgum

Doug Burgum addresses the crowd after winning the office of governor Tuesday night, Nov. 8, 2016, at the Sanctuary Events Center in Fargo. Dave Wallis / Forum News Service1 / 2
columnist Rob Port2 / 2

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum is absolutely not running for the U.S. Senate in 2018. When persistent rumors suggesting he was interested in federal office this cycle kept popping up last year, I actually checked in with him about them.

He told me in September there was "no truth whatsoever" to the rumors.

Still, Burgum may end up being the most important figure in the 2018 cycle because of how many voters he lured away from Democrats during the 2016 cycle.

Right now Congressman Kevin Cramer, a three-term House incumbent, has us all in "will he or won't he" mode as he flirts with a Senate run.

I've written before that it's a near certainty that Cramer is in — President Donald Trump pitched some woo to the Congressman this week at a White House meeting — but Cramer says he won't announce his intentions until later this month or even February.

Outside of Cramer, the only Republican challenger for one-term incumbent Sen. Heidi Heitkamp is state Sen. Tom Campbell of Grafton, who has been campaigning since summer.

Meanwhile Heitkamp, recently named by CNN as one of the 10 most vulnerable incumbents in the Senate, is extremely polarizing to North Dakota voters.

This is evidenced by her narrow margin of victory — just a few thousand votes — over Republican Rick Berg back in 2012.

Every other politician elected on North Dakota's statewide ballot going back to 2010 (all of them Republicans) has enjoyed wide margins of victory.

Voters are, in the aggregate, far more suspicious of Heitkamp than they are of the Republicans they've been electing.

This is where Burgum comes in. Because the reason he's governor is his appeal to North Dakota's Democrats.

Burgum, of course, won the 2016 gubernatorial primary over Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem. What you may not know is turnout in that primary was extremely unusual.

Remember that in the primary vote North Dakotans must choose either a Republican or Democratic ballot. In election cycles from 2000 to 2014, the Republicans have maintained an advantage of about 1.4 Republican voters for every Democratic voter.

In 2016, with the hotly contested Burgum versus Stenehjem race on the primary ballot, that Republican advantage shot up to 5.84 Republican voters for every Democrat.

That remarkable shift in voter turnout, alongside Burgum's landslide victory over Stenehjem, speaks to our governor having a lot of cross-party appeal.

This makes Burgum a potent rhetorical weapon against Heitkamp in the 2018 cycle.

North Dakota is a deeply Republican state. Heitkamp's path to victory lays with convincing a whole lot of Republicans to cast a vote for a Democrat. But as she's doing that, she can't afford to lose any significant number of Democratic voters.

That's the tightrope Heitkamp must walk to win another term in the Senate.

If Burgum would be willing to deploy his cross-party appeal on behalf of the Republican candidate, be it Campbell or Cramer, it could knock Heitkamp down off that rope.

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