Hmmm: GOP challenger barely edging Heitkamp in North Dakota

Can Republicans win a Senate seat in deep-red territory even without much help from Donald Trump? A new poll out for Heidi Heitkamp’s North Dakota re-election bid shows her trailing by four, within the margin of error but far enough out from the magical 50% threshold for incumbents for her to worry. It’s the first poll since last week’s primary made Kevin Cramer’s challenge official, and it’s only the second poll of the cycle:

An exclusive statewide poll by Valley News Live and Mason-Dixon Polling shows, that not even a week after North Dakota’s primary, the race for the U.S. Senate is tightening. The statewide poll shows Kevin Cramer only holds a 4% lead over incumbent Heidi Heitkamp…that’s within the poll’s margin of error. Valley News Live commissioned the poll through Mason-Dixon Polling. 625 voters in North Dakota were interviewed by phone for the poll.

Cramer’s lead sits at the edge of the margin of error, so this is technically a virtual tie. That’s worrisome in both directions. North Dakota is a deep-red state that went for Trump over Hillary Clinton by 36 points in 2016. Even Fargo went Republican in that race, giving Trump a ten-point victory over Clinton. Cramer has won three statewide races in a row for the state’s at-large House seat, and yet he’s barely edging out a Democrat and seriously underperforming Trump’s numbers from two years ago. Ten percent of Republicans claim to be undecided after the primary, which is not a good look for GOP hopes to capture Heitkamp’s seat.

On the other hand, Heitkamp has her own worries. Despite getting kid-gloves treatment from Trump the past few months, she’s down to 44% in a state where she won her last election in 2012 by slightly under 3,000 votes in a 50/50 split with Rick Berg — and that was in a presidential election with a different turnout model. She has a wide lead in Cass County (Fargo), 54/35, which she won 57/43 in 2012, but 11% there are still undecided. She took most of eastern North Dakota by wide margins in 2012, but she’s only leading 47/44 there now, and that includes the results from Cass.

The poll shows a gender gap among voters, but it’s not playing well for Heitkamp. She leads among women by only 49/41 while she trails among men 39/55, giving Cramer a +8 in the gap. There are more women than men undecided at this point, 10% to 6%, but undecideds are not a fertile demo for incumbents. They tend to swing to challengers in the end, and probably especially so in such a heavily Republican state being represented by a Democrat incumbent.

This raises the question — again — as to whether Trump will actively campaign for Cramer. A week ago, Cramer openly wondered whether Trump was protecting Heitkamp after she voted to confirm several of his nominees. Not long afterward, Trump issued a statement of support for Cramer, but he’s still not scheduled to make any appearances in North Dakota despite his trip to Duluth this week. This is a seat Republicans can win, if enough effort is made to lift Cramer up.