The entrance of Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota to the U.S. Senate race last week against first-term incumbent Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D) could shake up not only the chances for the GOP in picking up a seat, but their chances of retaining the Senate overall in 2018.

And a large source of that added scrutiny comes down to oil and gas regulations following Heitkamp’s closly watched votes on regulations like the Bureau of Land Management’s methane rule in 2017.

The first female senator from North Dakota faces a much tougher and more expensive race with Cramer as her opponent.

“I think this dramatically changes the race from Democrat to likely Republican pickup,” said Dan Eberhart, CEO of Canary, LLC, and oilfield services company, and vice chair of the Cramer Senate Finance Committee.

Eberhard told Western Wire that Cramer’s entrance as a top-tier candidate will force Heitkamp’s record on energy more into the open.

“From pipelines to the methane rule, it [Heitkamp’s record] dramatically affects North Dakota,” Eberhart said.

Heitkamp voted against repealing the Obama administration’s rule targeting oil and gas, becoming the 51st and deciding vote after maintaining an “undecided” posture in the run up to the vote on the Congressional Review Act resolution in the U.S. Senate last May.

“Her vote for the methane rule was a vote against western North Dakota,” Eberhart continued.

Heitkamp was alone among the state’s top elected officials in deciding to oppose the regulation’s repeal. Environmental groups had targeted her vote heavily.

Before the CRA vote last May, Port noted the broad support for repeal in North Dakota, with Heitkamp’s fence-sitting providing a head-scratcher for political observers in the state.

Instagram / U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer

Cramer, U.S. Sen. John Hoeven (R), and Gov. Doug Burgum were among those calling for the repeal of the BLM methane rule, while Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem (R) sued the federal government to overturn it, joining states like Montana and Wyoming.

Support for repeal of the BLM rule was prevalent throughout the West, as Western Wire reported. Cramer called it “God-awful” and said it was “aimed right at North Dakota.” Hoeven said it was “duplicative” and “unworkable.”

Eberhart’s comments echoed Cramer’s own broadside against Heitkamp last year in the aftermath of the CRA vote.

“Let’s be clear, a vote against this rule [repeal] is a vote against the workers and families in Western North Dakota,” Cramer said in a statement last year. “It’s a huge missed opportunity to protect our energy jobs in Western North Dakota and across America, and any senator who voted against this CRA [Congressional Review Act resolution] should be ashamed of themselves.”

Support for the repeal of the methane rule wasn’t confined to the political realm, as the oil and gas industry in the state was joined by groups like the Greater North Dakota Chamber of Commerce.

“Hundreds of energy employees and numerous businesses, chambers of commerce and trade associations wrote to express concern for the rule,” North Dakota Petroleum Council President Ron Ness said in a statement following the CRA vote. “Despite this, Senator Heitkamp has chosen to stand with the environmental activists and the Democratic party in Washington rather than the oil and gas workers and people of North Dakota.”

The BLM “venting and flaring” rule on methane came as an eleventh-hour regulation as the Obama administration was preparing to leave office in late 2016. Last week, a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that BLM had not justified its decision to postpone the rule while the agency completes a rescission of the rule, which may not occur until April.

The court sided with environmentalists and a preliminary injunction to enforce the regulation as originally written has been issued.

Given the role of oil and gas development in the state, her record on the issue could be a stumbling block for re-election.

Rob Port, a North Dakota newspaper columnist and radio host, said it wasn’t clear yet to him just how much the energy issue and the methane vote specifically would affect the outcome in November.

“It’s hugely important to North Dakota, economically speaking, no doubt,” Port told Western Wire. He said the methane rule was “probably more relevant to western North Dakota than the eastern part of the state. The latter, of course, has more voters.”

Both Eberhart and Port agreed that the race would likely be the most expensive election in the state’s history.

“The estimate could be in the $7-9 million range,” Eberhart estimated. “It will be the most expensive race in North Dakota history, by far.”

“I’m not sure what dollar figure to put on the race, but I suspect it will end up being the most expensive political contest our state has ever seen,” Port said. He explained that Heitkamp’s deep campaign war chest will likely be matched easily by Cramer, perhaps offsetting any money advantage.

“They are going to saturate the market. At this point, I’d say that the race is a coin flip, though in the moment Cramer has the momentum. His recruitment is a coup for Republicans both locally and nationally,” Port said.

That would mean pulling resources from other Democratic candidates that will see campaign dollars flow to North Dakota that would not have come if not for Cramer’s entrance, according to Eberhart.

Enforcement of the methane rule, as ordered by the decision in California, and the popularity of the administration in the state could tilt the field in Cramer’s favor.

“I think Trump is going to be a big factor in the race. He remains very popular in North Dakota. As long as that remains the case, he’ll be an asset to Cramer and other Republican candidates,” Port said.