In spite of their initial public bravado, national Democrats questioned whether they could successfully defend retiring Sen. Kent Conrad’s seat in increasingly Republican-dominated North Dakota. But in beating GOP Rep. Rick Berg, Heidi Heitkamp played up her record as a straight-talking former state attorney general while running a centrist race that emphasized her policy disagreements with President Obama.
Heitkamp grew up in the town of Mantador, N.D. (population 64 in 2010), near the Minnesota border. Her mother served as the school cook and custodian, and her father held a series of jobs ranging from truck driver to construction worker. She attributes her gravitation toward the Democratic Party partly to her grandmother, who grew up under President Franklin Roosevelt “and always reminded us that FDR put food on the table and made sure everyone survived the Depression,” she said in an interview. “That was a lasting memory, that this was a party that would help others when they needed a little help.”
Heitkamp studied political science as an undergraduate and then got a law degree from Lewis & Clark in Portland, Ore. She briefly worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as an attorney before moving to the North Dakota State Tax Commissioner’s Office. It was there that she met Conrad, who was then tax commissioner and who became her primary political inspiration. “I believed in what he believed in,” she said.
When Conrad left in 1986 to run for the Senate, she ran for his job “with a push” from him. (She had waged an unsuccessful bid for state auditor two years earlier.) She won with 66 percent of the vote and served until 1992, when she jumped into the attorney general’s race to succeed Nicholas Spaeth, who ran for governor. She again won easily, with 62 percent, and four years later won reelection with 64 percent.
As attorney general, Heitkamp became best known for leading the state’s legal efforts against tobacco companies that ultimately led to a national settlement in 1998. She said she is also proud of her efforts to revamp the state’s juvenile-justice and open-meetings laws as well as to improve the anti-domestic-violence system. She hoped to parlay her accomplishments into becoming governor in 2000, but lost to Republican John Hoeven, 55 percent to 45 percent. She said her ability to campaign in that race was clouded by her diagnosis of breast cancer, which has since gone into remission.
After that disappointing race, Heitkamp took a job as a director for Dakota Gasification, a company that operates a synthetic-fuels plant, and sometimes filled in for her brother Joel, a former North Dakota state senator, as host of a radio talk show. She said that she enjoyed the break from politics, but when Conrad announced that he would not seek a fifth term, she became intrigued by the thought of again succeeding him in office.
Her Republican opponent Berg took the state’s at-large House seat in 2011 after upsetting longtime Democratic incumbent Earl Pomeroy, a victory that many observers said cemented North Dakota’s status as a red state. Heitkamp stressed her independent views on issues such as energy, including her support for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, and on spending. She backs a constitutional balanced-budget amendment as long as it contains exemptions for wartime spending, Social Security, and Medicare.
Heitkamp also drew substantial attention for an advertisement in which she supported Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which is unpopular in the state. She said the law contains “good and bad” and “needs to be fixed,” but rebuked her opponent for voting to repeal it. “Rick Berg voted to go back to letting insurance companies deny coverage to kids,” she said. “Or for preexisting conditions.... I don’t ever want to go back to those days.”
She also pointed to Berg’s involvement in a company that owns and manages rental housing and that has drawn complaints from its tenants. When Berg contended he had “absolutely no involvement” with the company, her campaign released an ad listing documents that it said tied him to the firm and asked whether he could be trusted on other issues. She held a lead in polls during the summer, and although the race tightened as Election Day grew closer, she held on to win.