Democratic House hopefuls pledge independence _ to a point

March 11, 2018

In this March 6, 2018, photo, Mac Schneider announces his candidacy to the Democratic nomination for the North Dakota U.S. House of Representatives seat during a stop in Bismarck, N.D. (Mike McCleary/The Bismarck Tribune via AP)

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota’s Democratic U.S. House hopefuls are taking a page from party star and U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s playbook by painting themselves as independent-minded politicians who will buck national party leaders if their policies veer too far from the state’s right-leaning electorate.

It’s a recipe that worked for Democrats for decades — if not recently — to win congressional seats even as the state historically has backed the GOP presidential ticket.

“We are a red state and that’s a fact,” said Jamestown state Sen. John Grabinger, who entered the race this month. “If you are going to run as a far-left progressive, you won’t win anything in North Dakota.”

North Dakota has a Republican governor and GOP supermajorities in the Legislature. Heitkamp, the only statewide Democrat in office, has a challenge from GOP Rep. Kevin Cramer that Republicans hope will give them both Senate seats for the first time since 1960.

While the Heitkamp-Cramer race is being closely followed nationally, the House race has sparked its own intense scramble because it’s for an open seat. Statewide incumbents have rarely lost in North Dakota; as an example, the state’s congressional trio leading up to the 2010 election had served together so long — nearly two decades — that they referred to themselves as “Team North Dakota.”

And all three were Democrats in a conservative state.

“Whoever wins literally can hang on to that seat for life and this open seat opens up that possibility,” said Mark Jendrysik, chairman of the University of North Dakota’s political science department. “Incumbency gets you everything because everyone knows someone who has had something done for them from a member of Congress.”

Grabinger and former state lawmakers Mac Schneider of Grand Forks and Ben Hanson of Fargo are seeking the Democratic endorsement at the party convention next weekend in Grand Forks. Each said they would drop out if they aren’t endorsed.

Each is touting an independent image as a centerpiece of their campaigns, and so far have largely held off on talking up the national party’s support of issues such as abortion, universal health care and gun restrictions. And they aren’t aggressively criticizing President Donald Trump, who remains popular in North Dakota.

“Running against the president is not going to work in North Dakota,” Jendrysik said.

Former U.S. Marine Tiffany Abentroth and state Sens. Kelly Armstrong and Tom Campbell are running on the Republican side. Armstrong and Campbell are both strong Trump supporters.

Grabinger, Hanson and Schneider said they are willing to work across the aisle and with Trump on legislation that benefits North Dakota, especially when it comes to energy and agriculture issues.

Like Heitkamp, none of the Democratic House hopefuls support Trump’s new tax cuts or his tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. They generally agree on Trump’s plan to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure but only Schneider pointed to specific areas where he agreed with the president: Rebuilding the military and rolling back an Obama administration policy that expanded protections for some streams, tributaries and wetlands, a move that most in North Dakota believed was regulatory overreach.

Jendrysik said the Democratic hopeful in the general election has a decided disadvantage.

“There is so much party loyalty that any Republican will automatically get 49 percent of the vote in North Dakota,” Jedrysik said.

Still, it can be overcome, and Heitkamp, whose perceived personal charm led her to victory over former U.S. Rep. Rick Berg, is the model, Jedrysik said.

“A big part of it is likeability,” he said. “Heidi was simply more likable than Berg. She understands the game. You have to spend a lot of money introducing yourself and you have to go to every church picnic in North Dakota. That’s what people in this state expect and demand.”

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