When Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, a former attorney general of North Dakota, ran for senator last year — and she arguably ran the best race in the 2012 cycle — she iterated and reiterated and re-reiterated one message: She wasn’t Obama. In a debate with Republican Rick Berg, Heitkamp defended herself against the suggestion that she would kowtow to Washington Democrats, saying, “Congressman Berg will repeatedly talk about Harry Reid and Barack Obama, and I find it interesting, because this morning, when I woke up and brushed my teeth, I looked in the mirror and I did not see a tall, African-American, skinny man.”
One of her campaign mailers contained a nearly identical statement. It showed a picture of her standing in front of a full-length mirror, with the caption, “Last time I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see a tall, thin man with nuclear launch codes.”
Heitkamp’s campaign promise that she would be the consummate non-Washingtonian puts her in an unenviable position that showcases the problems facing many so-called prairie populists. While coastal Democrats have comparatively little trouble toeing the party line while simultaneously keeping their constituents happy, Democrats from the heartland and the Rocky Mountain states face special challenges that may or may not prove exploitable by Republicans.
Heitkamp’s political deftness didn’t evaporate in November. Just before making her first serious break with the Democratic caucus, the freshman senator made a public declaration in favor of gay marriage. One North Dakota political insider who was involved in the 2012 campaign speculated that the timing wasn’t a coincidence. While a number of other congressional Democrats were also voicing support for same-sex marriage in the days surrounding the hearings on the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8 before the Supreme Court, Heitkamp’s timing had a particular purpose.
There are two issues — gay marriage and gun control — on which rank-breaking isn’t taken lightly by the Democratic leadership these days. The North Dakota insider tells National Review that Heitkamp could get away with breaking ranks on one of those two, but not both. She picked guns. And we shall see how that works out for her.
Prairie populists skew a little more socially conservative than most of their colleagues (Senator Max Baucus of Montana notably justified his opposition to the Manchin-Toomey background-check amendment by simply saying, “Montana”), but some of them have an oddly high comfort level with economic policies that are farther left than even their coastal Democratic peers can take. For instance, Brian Schweitzer, the former governor of Montana, was an outspoken advocate of a single-payer health-care system; he didn’t think the Affordable Care Act went far enough. He was also an outspoken gun-lover. And when he was term-limited out of office, his approval ratings were in the 60s.
Heitkamp’s North Dakota is amenable to a similar streak of Wild West progressivism. For instance, though the state has recently found prosperity because of oil, it also has the distinction of being the only state with a state-owned bank and grain mill. And not too long ago, there was a push for a state-owned oil refinery. One state-owned bank, one abortion clinic — that just about sums up the situation in the Saudi Arabia of the Great Plains.
As things stand, national Democrats haven’t been kind to the freshman prairie populist. Bill Daley, White House chief of staff in 2011–12, wrote a biting op-ed in the Washington Post shortly after the vote expressing regret at having supported Heitkamp. One line in particular could make members of Camp Heitkamp uncomfortable: “I’ll have some advice for my friends in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles: Just say no to the Democrats who said no on background checks.”
That could be especially problematic for Heitkamp because North Dakotans are none too generous with political contributions. Thus most politicians in the state rely on outside support. The North Dakota Democratic party, according to political blogger Rob Port, got more than three-quarters of its support from out of state last year. So that’s one factor North Dakota Democrats have to bear in mind when balancing political ambitions with state loyalty.
Even so, one Washington Democratic insider who spoke with National Review was puzzled by the vitriol Heitkamp has received from national Democrats. “They’re recruiting moderate Democrats,” she says. “They’re recruiting people who are from red states because they can win in red states. And when they act like moderates, people are surprised.”
Republicans in the past have taken advantage of the tension between the views of red-state voters and some of their more left-wing representatives — the ousting of Tom Daschle being the most obvious example — but they’re hit-or-miss at it. Learning how to capitalize on that tension could be key to helping Republicans take back the Senate, especially given that there will be open seats in Montana and South Dakota when Senators Baucus and Tim Johnson retire. With Manchin making noise about reopening the gun-control fight, Heitkamp risks alienating herself from national Democrats if she digs in her heels, but from her constituents if she doesn’t. She and her prairie-populist compadres might not be Obama, but for Democratic voters between the Rockies and the Appalachians, that might not be enough.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.