Heitkamp's Red-State Survival Strategy

The first-term senator said voters want a check on the president even in Trump-friendly North Dakota.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp arrives for the state Democratic Party convention in Grand Forks, N.D. on March 17.
AP Photo/James MacPherson
Kimberly Railey
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Kimberly Railey
April 16, 2018, 8 p.m.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, one of the last Democratic incumbents to draw a top-tier challenger, swears she knew all along who her opponent would end up being.

“I always thought I was running against Kevin Cramer,” Heitkamp said last week in an interview at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee headquarters. “When the evaluation came, I think it was really hard for them to see anyone else being competitive.”

Cramer, now in his third term since North Dakota’s previous congressman lost to Heitkamp, didn’t decide to take her on until February. The leap came after aggressive lobbying from top Republicans, including President Trump, and an initial refusal to run.

In a state that Trump dominated by 36 points, Heitkamp’s reelection strategy hinges on her bet that voters still crave an effective check on the president, even if they supported him. She has, at times, unapologetically bucked Trump.

Most recently, Heitkamp blasted the president’s proposed tariffs, calling them a major threat to North Dakota’s export-driven economy. That record of independence, she asserted, will be a focal point of her race.

“If you want somebody who’s going to vote for Donald Trump or with Donald Trump 100 percent of the time, that’s not me,” Heitkamp said. “If you want somebody who is going to vote with North Dakota’s interests 100 percent of the time, I think that’s me.”

In an interview, Cramer, who has also spoken critically of the tariffs, dismissed Heitkamp’s approach as political “gymnastics” that will prove futile. Casting the senator’s party affiliation as a nearly fatal flaw, the congressman said she spends far too much time apologizing for it.

“The best check on the president are the voters of the United States,” Cramer said. “And in North Dakota, 63 percent of them voted for Trump.”

Heitkamp, North Dakota’s only Democratic statewide officeholder, recognizes she is in for a grueling fight. She characterized Cramer as a “very comparable” challenger to her 2012 rival, former Rep. Rick Berg, whom she defeated by less than a point.

An early endorser of Trump, Cramer has closely aligned himself with the White House. But even as Trump has pledged to help the congressman, Heitkamp described her relationship with the president as “cordial.” They met for the first of what Heitkamp estimated was about a half-dozen times shortly after Trump was elected, when he considered her for Agriculture secretary.

The first-term senator said she talks often with the person Trump selected instead, Sonny Perdue, as well as U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, whom she said she disagrees with but is a “smart, smart man.” She praised Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s work on rolling back regulations, including an Obama-era water rule, and declined to call for his resignation amid his alleged ethics issues.

Heitkamp said she doesn’t have much of a relationship with Vice President Mike Pence, who, after touting the senator as a “strong leader” in the fall, slammed her last month at a fundraiser in Fargo for opposing the tax bill.

“North Dakota could do a whole lot better,” he said.

Heitkamp has also found herself at odds with her own party on several occasions. Last month, in a highly public spat, she criticized liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren on legislation that would relax some banking regulations. The bill, which Heitkamp maintains would help small businesses and banks, illuminated broader tensions between the Democrats’ moderate and progressive wings.

“That dynamic is always there for me, and I was frustrated,” she said. “This wasn’t just checking a box. For me, this was about understanding what happens in rural communities.”

A former tax commissioner and attorney general, Heitkamp ran 11 points ahead of President Obama in 2012, the result of an enduring brand—voters refer to her colloquially as “Heidi”—that her detractors privately acknowledge.

Cramer noted that even Trump is personally fond of Heitkamp. At Trump Tower in 2016, when Cramer was also under consideration for a Cabinet post, he said the president asked if he liked Heitkamp.

“Everybody likes Heidi,” Cramer replied.

The congressman said the two share a “cultural kinship,” after being raised in nearby blue-collar towns. They did not know each other growing up, but Cramer played football and basketball in high school against Heitkamp’s brother, Joel Heitkamp.

In football, “we beat them so bad that you don’t get to know many of the players,” said Joel, a former state senator who hosts a daily morning talk show on KFGO. “In fairness, they beat us in basketball.”

Like the incumbent, Cramer boasts high name recognition around the state. After the congressman initially passed on a Senate bid, he said Trump pressured him to reconsider with a “serious but nice” admonition: “I love ya,” he said, according to Cramer. “Now go think more about your country—not so much about yourself.”

While personal politics loom large in North Dakota, Heitkamp suggested that she would welcome some out-of-state surrogates, including former Vice President Joe Biden. She also mentioned former Sen. Barbara Mikulski, emphasizing their similar economic roots.

Four months into the election year, Heitkamp said she has “no illusions” about the tough race ahead. The 62-year-old didn’t formalize her 2018 plans until September, a decision she did not make lightly.

“This will be brutal,” Heitkamp said. “It’s a six-year commitment, and so by the time that term is up, I’ll be close to 70 years old. That’s a big chunk of my life.”

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