If North Dakota senator Heidi Heitkamp hopes to keep her seat this November, her best shot lies in convincing North Dakota voters that she’s spent the last six years in Washington doing close to the opposite of what she’s actually been doing.
The Democratic senator seems to know it. On primary day in mid June, Heitkamp’s campaign released a video ad aptly summarizing the status of her reelection battle — the video touted the fact that she has “voted over half the time with President Trump.”
“That made a lot of people in Washington mad,” Heitkamp says in the ad, leaning casually against a red pickup truck, “but when I agree with him, I vote with him.” It’s exactly the tack that a Democrat grasping for a second term has to take in a state that Trump won by more than 35 percentage points.
Especially when that Democrat faces as daunting an opponent as Republican congressman Kevin Cramer, who as North Dakota’s at-large representative has the statewide name recognition and popularity needed to pose a substantial threat. In his last reelection contest, Cramer was sent back to the House with nearly 70 percent of the vote. Because the state leans to the right, Heitkamp will have to retain her entire Democratic base and pick up independent and Republican voters in order to win.
The latest poll of the race, from mid June, suggests Cramer might have the best shot of any Republican Senate candidate to unseat a Democratic incumbent. According to the survey of likely voters, Cramer leads Heitkamp 48 to 44 percent, with 8 percent undecided.
The question, then, is whether North Dakota voters are tuned in enough to realize that Heitkamp has a voting record six years long — and whether their disagreement with key parts of that record will translate into turning out in November.
This election is the first time that Heitkamp has ever had to campaign on her votes. Until she ran for Senate in 2012, her political career had been in the executive branch, most recently as attorney general. That lack of legislative history made it easy to run as if she were a Republican who just happened to have a “D” beside her name on the ballot; there was no pesky record to prove otherwise.
Rob Port — who has been a radio host and writer in North Dakota for more than a decade — tells National Review that during the 2012 campaign, then–chairman of the state Republican party Stan Stein jokingly offered Heitkamp a GOP membership and had membership cards printed up with her name on them, playing off her efforts to come across as conservative.
So while candidates often use their voting records as a means of proving sincerity, for a Democrat in a state as red as North Dakota, a record can be more like a millstone than a badge of honor — particularly if the Democrat is as instinctively progressive as Heitkamp, and has spent six years voting like it.
On top of that, the man in the White House remains largely popular among North Dakota voters, and any of them with a mind to figure out what their senator has been up to won’t have a tough time realizing that Heitkamp is no ally of the Republican party. During her six years in the Senate, she’s earned a lifetime rating of 11.28 out of 100 from the American Conservative Union — she’s hardly a moderate.
Critics of the North Dakota Democrat note that, while Heitkamp may have started aligning with the president’s agenda over the last year and a half in anticipation of her reelection struggle, she’s done so only on a few issues such as banking deregulation and farming.
At the same time, she’s opposed nearly every big-ticket GOP priority, and the ones that conservative voters favor. For instance, in January, she joined most of her Democratic colleagues in filibustering a popular 20-week abortion ban. This, despite having said during her 2012 run, “I do not support public funding of abortions, and believe that late-term abortions should be illegal except when necessary to save the life of the mother.”
Heitkamp has supported taxpayer-funded abortion, too, and in one sense it’s paid off: She’s earned herself a 100 percent rating on Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s 2018 congressional scorecard. In a state as pro-life as North Dakota, though, this might as well be a target on her back. In June, Cramer told me that Heitkamp’s vote against the 20-week ban was one of the key reasons he changed his mind and decided to jump in the race. After that vote, he said, his office was inundated with calls from North Dakotans demanding that he challenge her for the seat.
Since Trump’s election, Heitkamp has also joined the Senate Democratic caucus to vote against repealing and replacing Obamacare, against a border fence, against about a quarter of Trump’s judicial nominees, against legislation to withhold federal funding from sanctuary cities that don’t enforce federal immigration law, and against the GOP tax-reform bill that passed last December. The last of these is especially likely to upset North Dakota taxpayers, who a Tax Policy Center analysis determined will have the largest average increase in after-tax income as a result of the cuts.
In late June, Trump trekked out to North Dakota to host a rally for Cramer, and despite past friendly interactions with Heitkamp, he didn’t pull any punches. “When Heidi ran for office, she promised to be an independent vote for the people of North Dakota,” Trump said. “Instead, she went to Washington and immediately joined Chuck [Schumer].”
The president ran down the list of big votes where Heitkamp has strayed from the Republican agenda and added, alluding to the Democrat’s efforts to paint herself as a moderate, that “she may give us a couple of quickie votes before the election. She might, because she has no choice. But the day after that election, she’s voting party line, 100 percent.”
Trump fired off one particularly devastating line: “You need a senator who doesn’t just talk like they’re from North Dakota, but votes like they’re from North Dakota.”
If Cramer is smart, he won’t let that line be forgotten on the campaign trail. Most voters in his state sympathize with the president’s agenda, and they want their senators to cooperate — at the top of the list right now is confirming Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, a vote on which Heitkamp remains undecided.
North Dakota voters will surely be watching to see which way she ends up going. In the meantime, Heitkamp is likely hoping they won’t pay too close attention to the votes she’s already cast.
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