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Russia, Trump, Soybeans Roil North Dakota Senate Race

Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Rep. Kevin Cramer event

Democrats need to worry about losing one of the party’s Senate seats. North Dakota Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer is close to knocking off Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D) in November.

The race is tied, according to a Fox News poll released Sept. 12. The survey showed Cramer leading Heitkamp 48-44 percent, a lead that is within the poll’s margin of sampling error, according to Fox News.

Could Russian election meddling be to blame? Heitkamp discussed the possibility in an August conversation with the Grand Forks Herald.

“I would be a fool if I didn’t think that was true,” Heitkamp said.

And she’s not alone. The idea of Russian interference in the Heitkamp-Cramer race was first raised by a retired University of North Dakota police science professor, Lloyd Omdahl.

Omdahl concluded in a newspaper column published by the Minot Daily News that since Russian President Putin has said he wanted Donald Trump to win the White House in 2016, there’s no reason to believe Russia wouldn’t have its fingers in the North Dakota Senate race.

“We know that the Russians can and will manipulate North Dakota elections. They demonstrated in 2016 that they have the technical capacity. The truth is that they are already here,” Omdahl wrote in the column titled “Fighting Godless Communism.”

“It doesn’t take a political genius to conclude that the Russians will be opposing the election of Heidi Heitkamp and supporting the election of Kevin Cramer,” Omdahl added.

Omdahl also wrote that the Trump administration has “done very little to protect the 2018 election from Russian meddling,” and might have “left the door ajar so that Russian rustler can take a North Dakota Senate seat.”

Even though Heitkamp said she’d be “a fool” if she didn’t think Omdahl made a strong point, she doesn't believe her campaign has been infiltrated, yet, by Moscow.

"We did all the cyber hygiene that you would expect a campaign to do and we are absolutely vigilant," Heitkamp said.

However, Omdahl warned in his op-ed that Putin wouldn’t go after North Dakota’s election system. There’s no need for North Dakota’s candidates to worry about being hacked. Instead, Omdahl said North Dakotans needed to be vigilant about social media messages and propaganda.

"The senators are not going to know what is opposition research activity and what is Russian activity," since the Russians will be very crafty about covering their fingerprints, Omdahl said. "They'll need a discerning public to do that.”

Cramer blasted Omdahl’s, and Heitkamp’s, logic as “laughable.”

"It sounds like a really pathetic excuse for poor performance in the election in advance," Cramer said. "It's a figment of a very liberal establishment imagination," he said, adding that the notion was "laughable at best, if not pathetic.”

Of course, the North Dakota Senate race is about more than Russian meddling. One of the top issues, no surprise, is President Donald Trump.

Cramer, a three-term congressman, is not one of the GOP incumbents who’ve been walking sideways away from Trump.

Cramer says his constituents feel good about the economy and, as a result, are happy with Trump and Republican leaders. “And I get to take credit for my part in all of that,” he said.

Cramer’s using President Trump’s endorsement of his campaign in one TV ad, while showcasing his vote against — and Heitkamp’s vote in favor of — a bill to fund sanctuary cities in another.

Heitkamp, trying to win a second term in the Senate, knows better than to completely disrespect Trump. After all, Trump won North Dakota by 36 points in 2016. Heitkamp accused Cramer of trying to win votes by claiming the president likes him better than her.

“(Trump’s) going to be a factor. He’s popular in North Dakota,” Heitkamp said. “I’m saying, ‘vote for me because I’m from North Dakota, not from a political party.’”

Russians — and Trump — aside, both the Cramer and Heitkamp campaigns need to be concerned with voter turnout the first Tuesday in November. The Fox News poll showed that with only 15 percent of the North Dakota electorate described as “undecided,” there are not many minds open to change before Election Day.

Heitkamp's and Cramer’s supporters say they are reasonably sure that they won’t change their minds before the November vote. There’s very little either candidate could do in the next month-and-a-half to erode support, except for one thing.

A third of those who support Heitkamp said they’d be willing to either vote for Cramer or stay home if the senator opposes Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

But there is an issue bedeviling Cramer, too: soybeans.

“Elevators in the eastern portion of the state have pulled their bids for soybeans. There is literally no price for soybeans,” Dr. Frayne Olson, a risk management analyst with North Dakota State University, said to the Williston Herald.

“Right now, it’s a small number of elevators, but I do expect more as we get closer to harvest. It’s going to be very, very hard to sell soybeans at harvest,” Olson added.

Most North Dakota soybeans usually go into an elevator before they go to China. But that was before Trump’s trade impasse with China — and that country’s 25 percent import tariff on U.S. soybeans.

Rob Port, a Forum News Service columnist and Fargo, N.D., radio host, noted Trump won North Dakota by such a wide margin in 2016 because voters believed they liked his approach to agricultural trade policy.

But the soybean problem two years later is hurting North Dakota farmers.

“Republicans can argue that short-term turbulence in the commodities markets is the price of admission to making real progress toward better trade deals, but that probably comes as cold comfort to farmers staring down the barrel of real financial losses in the here and now,” Port wrote.

“This issue could turn on him very quickly,” Port added, “and throw victory to incumbent Senator Heidi Heitkamp.”