ND Dem’s skillful moves to hold Senate seat in Trump country
MANDAN, N.D. (AP) — Heidi Heitkamp has no patience for resisting.
That’s what the North Dakota Democrat says, though resistance also is a luxury Heitkamp can little afford in one of the nation’s most Donald Trump-friendly states.
The first-term U.S. senator, among the most vulnerable in her party seeking re-election this year, is maneuvering herself at once as an ally of the Republican president on policy, and a polite opponent at other times.
“If you simply focus on resistance, if that’s your sole motivation and purpose, I don’t know how you’d ever get anything done,” Heitkamp said during an Associated Press interview at a coffee shop in Mandan, her hometown. “When we agree, we work together.”
Heitkamp’s record of championing some of Trump’s proudest deregulation moves has frustrated Republicans, who would like nothing more than to paint her as obstructing the president. That has been the more combative approach of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, seeking re-election in Democrat-friendly Massachussetts.
Heitkamp’s Republican opponent in North Dakota, U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, is competing with the incumbent to stand out as the better friend to Trump.
It’s a tack that Heitkamp says overstates Trump’s popularity.
Heitkamp is among 10 Democratic senators seeking re-election this year in states Trump carried in 2016. Their fate will go a long way to deciding whether Democrats stand a chance at capturing the majority in November. Republicans now hold a 51-49 edge.
On the surface, Heitkamp’s challenge may appear greater than those faced by her peers: In 2016, Trump won North Dakota by 36 percentage points, a margin exceeded only in West Virginia.
But Heitkamp, 62, is a near-40-year political veteran of this deeply conservative state. She comes to this moment with a background of statewide political success, heartbreaking defeat and deep insight about the issues of agriculture, energy and trade which drive this lightly populated but pivotal state.
“I’ve won elections by big margins, by little margins. And I’ve lost elections,” said Heitkamp, a former state attorney general and failed candidate for governor who won her Senate seat by 3,000 votes in 2012. “And that’s not what motivates me to do this work — winning and losing elections. It’s the work.”
Heitkamp has championed Trump’s move to loosen federal rules that she has called onerous for North Dakota’s farmers and mining industry. Last month, she stood gleefully alongside Trump as he signed a measure easing regulations on community banks and credit unions, on which many farmers and rural businesses rely.
Heitkamp also has voted to confirm 21 of Trump’s 26 Cabinet-level nominations. Only Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who also faces re-election in a conservative state, has voted for more. Heitkamp has voted for the vast majority of Trump’s judicial nominees, including Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.
Cramer, whose main campaign claim is his devotion to the president, has criticized Heitkamp for voting in December against Trump’s tax cuts, his chief domestic achievement.
Heitkamp also voted against move forward on a bill that would make nearly all abortions illegal after 20 weeks of pregnancy, and that’s a sore spot with North Dakota’s active evangelical conservatives.
She did lead a bipartisan effort to lift the 40-year ban on U.S. oil exports in 2015, against the wishes of Democratic President Barack Obama. But she faced a backlash from the petroleum industry this year for voting to keep in place limits on burning excess natural gas released from oil drilling sites. Heitkamp, a former natural gas company director, argued that the excess could be captured and sold.
Cramer said Heitkamp is in a bind.
“She has a big dilemma,” he told the AP. “On one hand, she wants to portray herself in North Dakota as a Trump supporter. On the other hand, she wants to be a Democrat and not torque off her big-money, liberal friends. People aren’t falling for it.”
But Heitkamp is a known entity in North Dakota, recognizable to many with her unruly red hair, barn coat and booming laugh.
She visited a grain cooperative and ethanol processing plant in the high, green plains west of Bismarck during the Senate’s Memorial Day recess. Republican Mike Appert, a farmer who met Heitkamp for the first time last week at Red Trail Energy, said she gets high marks from conservatives for her support of the ethanol industry.
Appert, disappointed by her tax-cut and abortion bill opposition, said he appreciates her willingness to work with Trump.
“From a lot of people I’ve talked to, people who voted for Trump for president are going to vote for Heidi,” said Appert, who is undecided in the Senate race, but said Heitkamp “deserves a close look.”
Heitkamp’s up-front spot at Trump’s banking bill signing recalled the time when she joined him on stage for a rally in North Dakota last fall, a symbol of their uncommon bond.
She flew aboard Air Force One from Washington to Bismarck for a September rally. That was nine months after Trump invited her during the presidential transition to Trump Tower, where she rejected his offer of a Cabinet-level position.
Cramer, who initially turned down challenging Heitkamp early this year, changed his mind after a multiple attempts by Trump, including a White House dinner with Cramer and his wife, to recruit him. “He begged me,” Cramer told the AP last week.
Cramer has used the sales job to portray himself as close to the president in a state where Trump’s approval runs well ahead of his national rating.
“She can’t use my support for the Trump agenda against me,” he said. “She’s essentially saying ‘vote for me because I’m going to be like Kevin.’ I’m telling voters to vote for me because I am Kevin.”
But Heitkamp said no one agrees with Trump all of the time, even in North Dakota.
“Do I want to have a relationship so I can pick up the phone and talk about things like farm policy, trade policy? Yeah. I think that’s in the best interest of North Dakota,” she said. “I say if you want someone who is going to vote with the president 100 percent of the time, that’s not going to be me. Because I don’t think he’s 100 percent right.”
Associated Press writer James MacPherson in Bismarck, North Dakota, contributed to this report.