Is Heidi Heitkamp Even Going To Run In 2018?


Prior to the Senate's vote on the Keystone XL oil pipeline, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and other members of the Democratic caucus file out of a strategy session on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2014. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the bill's sponsor, has 59 votes ready and is searching for the last vote needed for approval, both to pass the legislation and to buoy her chances of retaining her Senate seat in a runoff Dec. 6 against Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

“I’m wondering now if she’s even going to run,” a friend told me recently.

We were talking about future election cycles, and his comments were about North Dakota’s junior Senator Heidi Heitkamp and her plans for 2018. I was a little taken aback by the comment. My friend, after all, is no idle political gadfly. Although a Republican he is no mere observer of state politics, but rather a blunt political professional not prone to flights of partisan fancy. The he would be unsure if Heitkamp, a first-term incumbent and the only Democrat to win a statewide race in North Dakota since 2008, would be running again 2018 seems like big news.

I was thinking about that yesterday when Heitkamp cast a couple of votes one of which could be used as evidence that Heitkamp isn’t running, and the other as evidence that she is.

First was her vote against H.R. 3762 which repeals Obamacare and defunds Planned Parenthood. According to the Grand Forks Herald Heitkamp described the legislation “as ‘petty politics’ and said it would be ‘reckless’ to take ‘an ax to Americans’ health care’.”

Democrats would no doubt argue, by way of putting Obamacare in a positive light, that thousands of North Dakotans have received health insurance through Obamacare exchanges. While that’s true, how many of those people had health insurance previously? How many were forced into the exchange by Obamacare’s mandates? And, more generally, how many are struggling with an accelerated rise in the cost of insurance premiums due to Obamacare?

The law continues to be hugely unpopular in North Dakota (though the issue has faded in terms of prominence with voters) and Heitkamp’s vocal support for it (even tempered with her usual disclaimer that it needs to be tweaked) is a political risk. Maybe it means she’s not running.

On the other hand, Heitkamp did vote against an amendment to H.R. 3762 which would have expanded background checks for firearms purchases. It was pretty much in line with a similar vote Heitkamp made in 2013. “I have made clear where I stand on background checks legislation, and that hasn’t changed,” she told the Herald.

Was that a calculated move? Certainly a vote for the amendment would have been easier for Heitkamp in terms of ingratiating herself with her national party, but that sort of a vote would also alienate Heitkamp from a vast swath of her gun-loving, red state constituency. In other words, it was the right vote for someone who eventually wants to get elected in North Dakota again.

Then again, maybe Heitkamp doesn’t so much want to position herself to run for another six year term in the Senate as she wants to not be a liability for her fellow Democrats running in 2016. Like, say, former Agriculture Commissioner Sarah Vogel who is considering a run for governor and would no doubt be looking to lean on Heitkamp during a statewide campaign after 20 years on the sidelines.

Meanwhile, Republicans maintain that Heitkamp – who didn’t exactly win a resounding victory in 2012 – has been fading in popularity over the last year and a half.

We can’t say anything for certain, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s no certainty Heitkamp will try for another term in office. Especially with Democrats being unlikely to make up much ground in 2016, and Republicans both in North Dakota and nationally sure to make a major contest out of that Senate race.