North Dakota Dem earns some Trump backers by leaning GOP
BISMARCK (AP) — Sen. Heidi Heitkamp is the only statewide-elected Democrat in heavily Republican North Dakota, where President Donald Trump rolled to a win last year and the GOP is optimistic about knocking out the senator in next year’s midterm elections.
Yet Heitkamp hardly resembles many of her hard-charging, Trump-resisting Democratic colleagues in Washington. She welcomed word of Trump’s planned visit to the state on Wednesday, expressing the hope that he addresses “the kitchen-table issues that keep North Dakotans” up at night. She has voted for Trump nominees and diverges from Democratic orthodoxy on numerous issues, especially her state’s prized energy reserves.
It’s why the 61-year-old Heitkamp is acceptable to a good number of the president’s supporters.
“I know she knows North Dakota,” said Williston bank employee Steve Slocum, 55, who voted for Trump last year and Heitkamp in 2012. “She’s not stupid. She’s going to be as moderate as she can be.”
Heitkamp hasn’t announced whether she will seek a second term, but she would pose a surprising obstacle to Republicans’ hope of expanding their 52-seat majority. With $3 million socked away for a campaign, Heitkamp has one little-known Republican state senator as a challenger while her best-known potential GOP opponent, the state’s lone member of the U.S. House, bides his time.
Trump’s visit to the state Wednesday is in part to pressure Heitkamp to support GOP tax legislation. Aides said Heitkamp planned to join Trump at the North Dakota event and she would travel with him on Air Force One.
Whatever warnings the president has for her, Trump cannot credibly paint her as purely partisan, former Republican Gov. Ed Schafer said.
“She is a good public servant,” Schafer said. “And she has made several votes that were against the Democratic caucus.”
Heitkamp is among 10 Democrats in states Trump carried who are up for re-election in 2018. The state’s solid Republican trend and Trump’s huge margin of victory, 36 percentage points, put her at risk of losing her seat.
But she broke with Democrats on Trump priorities such as business deregulation, was among three Democrats to support Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, and was among two to vote for EPA Director Scott Pruitt.
That was after Heitkamp’s December meeting with Trump in New York, where they discussed a potential Cabinet post. Though she returned to the Senate, the cordiality has played well with some North Dakota Republicans.
“I think she played it right by playing footsies with Trump,” said 76-year-old Bismarck Republican Dina Butcher, a private investigator who supports Trump. “She was showing respect for the presidency.”
To be sure, Heitkamp has vocally criticized Trump’s initial, two-sided assessment of blame after the deadly clash in Charlottesville, Virginia, last month. She also decried Trump’s ban on U.S. travel from six mostly Muslim countries. Schafer says Heitkamp angered Republicans in May by voting with her party against allowing oil companies to burn methane gas.
He complains that the Gorsuch vote masks lower-court Trump judicial nominations whom Heitkamp opposed and points to her stand with other Democrats against GOP efforts to dismantle Barack Obama’s health care law.
Still, Schafer says her leading role on 2015 legislation to lift the ban on U.S. petroleum exports was “an honest one,” that garnered goodwill among Republicans.
“A Republican can win if we expose her true self,” Schafer said. “But the reality is she is a very formidable candidate.”
Troy Anliker, a 55-year-old rancher from tiny Forbes, voted for Heitkamp and Trump and says North Dakotans see them as balancing each other.
“You kind of have to scratch their backs to get some of your agenda done too,” he said. “That’s just politics.”
Dee Herdebu sees it differently and calls Heitkamp “a fake.”
“She’s with her party,” said the 50-year-old Republican bookkeeper from Bismarck. “I don’t think she has done anything that has benefited us.”
Third-term Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer is viewed as Heitkamp’s biggest potential threat. As an at-large House member, he represents the entire state.
Yet, he is in no rush. “I won’t be pushed into it,” Cramer told The Associated Press in August about running for the Senate. “The goal is for a Republican to win the seat, and the other thing is to do everything I can to keep the House seat.”
Cramer is a devout, if sometimes awkward, Trump advocate. He defended former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s comparison of Syrian President Bashar Assad to Adolf Hitler and recently stood by Trump’s comment that some of the white supremacist demonstrators in Charlottesville were “very fine people.”
Heitkamp has largely steered clear of partisan attacks on Trump. She has been skillful at straddling her state’s and party’s politics, said Bismarck Republican Chuck Reichert.
Referring to the Democratic-leaning neighboring state, the 79-year-old retired coal miner joked, “In Minnesota, she’d be a Republican.”