MANDAN, N.D. — Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s daunting political challenge just got that much harder.
A North Dakota Democrat seeking re-election in a fiercely Republican state, she is running as a centrist, of course. She is even running as a sometimes partner to President Donald Trump. But the nomination of a new Supreme Court justice who could shift the court’s philosophy for decades adds intense pressure on centrists like Heitkamp from both sides.
Will the everywoman persona that makes her popular at home be enough to fight off attacks from the right if she does not side with the president on his pick for the top court? Or will she lose support from within her party if she does?
Of the Democrats running for re-election to the Senate from states that Trump carried, Heitkamp’s challenge is one of the steepest. Trump won North Dakota by 36 percentage points over Democrat Hillary Clinton, a margin the Republican exceeded only in West Virginia.
To this challenge, Heitkamp is bringing not just a policy acumen compiled over four decades in public life, politics and business, but a no-nonsense public personality that is part “your mom’s best friend,” part “your seventh-grader’s math teacher” and part actress Frances McDormand’s portrayal of Marge Gunderson in the film “Fargo.”
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With little trace of affect, Heitkakmp subtly commands a room, even if wearing a faded barn coat, hiking shoes and a nest of unruly red hair, as she did walking into Red Trail Energy’s Richardton ethanol plant in June. “No one ever accused me of being a girly girl,” she quipped to The Associated Press later.
The lines on her face tell a story of 62 years of bracing northern winters, high-profile political wins and crushing losses — never mind a battle with breast cancer 18 years ago.
When she locks eyes in conversation, those lines quickly appear when she lets loose her hard laugh, as she did at the counter of a suburban Bismarck coffee shop, and disappear just as fast, as when her detailed explanation of trade policy silenced a room full of grain farmers.
“She’s good about listening,” said Delane Thom, manager of the grain co-op Heitkamp was visiting. “And you can tell she knows what life and work is like out here in the country.”
WHY IT MATTERS
If Democrats have a glimmer of hope to take control of the Senate, they cannot stand to lose almost any of the 10 seats held by incumbents in states like North Dakota.
Heitkamp is stepping up her 2012 campaign’s I’m-like-you message, illustrated then by a campaign ad featuring her hitting pitches in a batting cage as a metaphor for hitting back at attacks that she’s a typical Democrat.
This time, ad maker Mark Putnam has her under the hood of a pickup truck apparently disconnecting the battery to illustrate Republican Sen. Bob Corker’s label of Heitkamp as “stronger than battery acid.”
Like Heitkamp, her Republican challenger, Rep. Kevin Cramer, has a long political history in the state. But he’s demonstrated a tendency for cringe-worthy comments.
For instance, at the height of the outrage over migrant children being held in fenced-off containment areas at the Mexican border, Cramer said in a radio interview there’s “nothing inhumane about a chain-link fence.”
“If it is, then every ballpark in America is inhumane,” he said.
WHAT TO WATCH
Even in today’s vicious political atmosphere, Republicans acknowledge it’s hard, if not unwise, to demonize someone as popular as Heitkamp.
Trump himself has been deferential to her on occasion and even asked her to consider working in his administration.
In an ad that began airing this month, Cramer says, “We all like Heidi,” then faults her for voting in December against the Republican tax-cut bill.
Steven Law, who heads the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC affiliated with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said rather than question Heitkamp’s intentions, it’s better to simply portray her voting record.
“A lot of it comes down to tonality,” Law said. “People like nice politicians, but want people who represent the state.”
Besides the tax bill, voters can look forward to hearing more about Heitkamp’s vote against lifting the ban on the practice of burning excess natural gas at oil well sites, for instance.
No one is more aware of her unique advantages and obstacles in North Dakota than Heitkamp.
She’s been at this since 1986, when she ran and won her first race for statewide office — tax commissioner.
In the past 32 years, she has won and lost elections, worked in the state’s booming energy industry and returned to politics, all while keeping in touch with voters in a state with a population smaller than Columbus, Ohio.
Heitkamp had confidence in her connection to home in 2012, when Democratic operatives in Washington, D.C., considered her more than a long shot for the U.S. Senate.
What those insiders didn’t understand, Heitkamp said, is that the overwhelming majority of North Dakotans had heard of her. More than that, they had an impression, she said.
“And if you ask people, say, ‘What do you know about her?’ They would all have an opinion,” she told the AP at a cafe in her hometown of Mandan.
The bottom line for people is simple, Heitkamp said:
‘”I’m not always going to agree with her, but I do know her.’”
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