Heidi Heitkamp—the Democrat who surprised everyone and beat her Republican challenger Rick Berg to win the North Dakota Senate seat in this year’s election—will be an important leader in a growing group of moderate Democratic senators hailing from energy-rich states.
“We hope that the voices of people who are familiar with the energy issues will be voices that will be listened to in the caucus,” Sen.-elect Heitkamp told National Journal in a phone interview.
North Dakota is now second only to Texas in oil production and has the country’s lowest unemployment rate—3.1 percent—due in large part to the state’s oil boom over the last few years.
Heitkamp noted that Democratic Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana visited her state during the campaign season. “We see this as an American issue, not just an energy state issue,” Heitkamp said. Former President Bill Clinton also stumped for her in the last days of the campaign when it became more apparent she had a good shot at winning.
With Heitkamp’s surprise victory—even the New York Times’ Nate Silver didn’t predict she would win—and another upset win by Rep. Joe Donnelly in the Indiana race, the Senate will welcome two new Democrats next year who are especially moderate (some would say conservative) on energy and environment issues.
Republicans saw these pair of wins as a silver lining in an election that was mostly and surprisingly positive for Democrats across the board.
“The Senate was disappointing, though we picked up some strong fossil-fuel Ds,” said one former House Republican energy aide, who would only speak on the condition of anonymity.
Heitkamp was selected to the two panels she had pledged she would seek during her campaign—Agriculture and Indian Affairs—and will not be sitting on either the Energy and Natural Resources or Environment and Public Works committees. That won’t hinder her efforts in the area, she maintained.
“When you come from a state that is the second-largest oil producer in the country…you have an obligation to speak up and speak your mind and participate in the debate in ways that might not necessarily be sitting in a committee meeting,” Heitkamp said.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who does sit on the energy committee, told National Journal in an interview last week that Heitkamp could be central to building bridges with other Democrats on energy issues.
“I think she’ll have an opportunity to get involved to work to get Democrats to support energy legislation,” Hoeven said. “To move any energy bill, it’s got to be bipartisan. I think we actually have a shot to do it.”
Heitkamp and Donnelly’s positions on energy align them with other Democrats like Landrieu, Begich, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. These senators represent some states that are traditionally known for their fossil-fuel production, such as Texas and Louisiana. But others, like Arkansas and North Dakota, are seeing booms in unconventional natural gas and oil. Donnelly is one of the few remaining Blue Dog Democrats in the House and voted against the 2009 cap-and-trade bill, which turned off some environmental groups from supporting his candidacy this year.
Heitkamp didn’t make a lot of friends in the environmental community while on the campaign trail either. In October, she told a business crowd that President Obama was “wrong on energy” and that he should fire both Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and Energy Secretary Steven Chu, according to the AP.
The League of Conservation Voters was one of the most active environmental groups this election cycle, and spent $14 million on certain races supporting the Democratic candidates, including Martin Heinrich in New Mexico, incumbent Sherrod Brown in Ohio and Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts. All three of these politicians won, and LCV and other environmental groups said their efforts had a hand in the victories. LCV did not devote time or money to either the North Dakota or Indiana race.
“We were concerned by and did not agree with some of her [Heitkamp’s] statements while she was campaigning,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president for government affairs at LCV. “But we look forward to working with her once she gets to the Senate and we hope we can find areas of common ground.”
In her interview with National Journal, Heitkamp stood by her comments that Jackson and Chu should go.
“Whether in fact they’ve been obstructionists in developing an energy policy, the perception is definitely that they have picked one side or the other rather than broadening the discussion and talking about all the elements,” Heitkamp said. She said she hoped Obama would select new cabinet members. “It would go a long way toward opening the dialogue on long-term energy policy if we had different administration representation.”
One of the top candidates for the next Energy secretary is former Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who only had nice things to say about Heitkamp in a recent interview with National Journal.
“I’ve known her for a long, long, long time,” Dorgan said. He, Heitkamp, and retiring Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., all held the same position as tax commissioner before coming to the Senate. “She ran a terrific race, near perfect race.” On energy and environment issues, Dorgan predicted she would strike a moderate balance by supporting both fossil-fuel and renewable energy.
“She has taken some centrist positions on things that are not unexpected,” Dorgan said, noting her strong support of North Dakota’s oil production.
Obama’s potential nomination of Dorgan for a cabinet position would have the support of Heitkamp. “We’ll see if the president does call on him,” she said. “I’m hopeful that he’ll take up the challenge.”
Heitkamp, who has a background in energy, including oil and natural gas tax issues, has made friends with the industry’s top executives in Washington.
“She’s terrific. We had lunch with her the other day,” Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, told National Journal in an interview last week. “She is very thoughtful, extremely well informed about oil and gas, particularly on the taxation [issue]. She understands the dynamics around oil and gas.”
In her interview with NJ, Heitkamp expressed general support for not eliminating oil and gas tax breaks. “Most of these costs are no different than any other business deductions,” she said.