FARGO - Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., presumes the Russians will try to intervene in the hotly contested North Dakota Senate race in which she is challenged by Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.
The possibility of Russian interference in the North Dakota race, which could help determine control of the Senate, was raised publicly in a newspaper column by Lloyd Omdahl, a retired political science professor at the University of North Dakota.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said publicly that he wanted President Donald Trump to win the U.S. presidency in 2016, and a special prosecutor has indicted members of the Russian intelligence apparatus for interfering in the election.
Given that background, Omdahl said it's likely that Russia would try to help Cramer, a loyal Trump supporter, unseat Heitkamp, who sometimes sides with Trump but sometimes opposes his policies.
Heitkamp, responding to a question during a meeting with The Forum Editorial Board, said she believes the Russians could try to intercede in the race.
"I would be a fool if I didn't think that was true," Heitkamp said.
Cramer rejected any suggestion that the Russians would have an incentive to intercede on his behalf in the race, saying the Trump administration, which just announced new sanctions against the Russians, has been tougher than previous administrations with Russia.
"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."
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., was the apparent target of a Russian email "phishing" attack to try to infiltrate her computer network, according to press reports.
In the 2016 campaign, Russians stole emails from Hillary Clinton, Trump's Democratic opponent, to embarrass her campaign, and used social media in an effort to influence voters, federal prosecutors have alleged.
Has Heitkamp's campaign been infiltrated? "I think I can say no," she said, adding that her Senate and campaign staffs have been trained.
"We did all the cyber hygiene that you would expect a campaign to do and we are absolutely vigilant," she said.
Secretary of State Al Jaeger has said North Dakota's voting system is secure and has not been penetrated by hackers.
At the local level, voters cast paper ballots. "There's a paper trail of the results," Jaeger said, that can be checked if questions arise, and the results are reported to his office via a secure network.
"The system that does the tabulating and all that is secure," and security enhancements are made routinely, he said.
But Omdahl said the greatest risk of Russian influence in the election is through the creation of front groups and spreading inflammatory messages via social media targeting a dozen Democrats, including Heitkamp, likely to be in the Russians' crosshairs. It will be difficult to determine if the attacks are coming from the Russians or partisan foes, he said.
"The senators are not going to know what is opposition research activity and what is Russian activity," since the Russians will try to conceal their role, Omdahl said. "They'll need a discerning public to do that."
As a result, Omdahl said, voters should be alert to the possibility of propaganda and view political social media messages with a critical eye. Studies have shown that bogus news stories are more likely than legitimate news to go "viral" through shares on social media.
Besides the attempt to infiltrate McCaskill's network, Facebook has reported manipulation efforts similar to those employed by the Russians in 2016, and intelligence officials have warned that Russians are continuing to try to interfere in American democracy.
On Wednesday, Aug. 8, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said Russian operatives have "penetrated" some Florida election systems ahead of the 2018 midterms. As with Heitkamp and McCaskill, Nelson is up for re-election in November.
"Everybody thinks they're going to be a lot worse in 2018," Omdahl said, referring to the Russians.
So far, Heitkamp said she has seen no evidence of attempts by the Russians to influence the race, but she and her staff are alert to the possibility. "We are monitoring social media very closely," she said.
Jaeger said campaign interference via online platforms like Facebook and Twitter is beyond his office's control. He declined to offer an opinion of the likelihood the Russians will try to sway the North Dakota Senate race.
"I really can't comment on what anybody might attempt to do through social media," he said.