If there was one bedrock foundation in Heidi Heitkamp’s campaign for the US Senate in North Dakota, it was the idea that she was “independent.” That she’d go to Washington DC and stand up to President Obama and the liberal wing of her national party. In fact, Heitkamp campaigned so far to the right that at one point the state Republican Party offered her a membership, gratis.
But things are a little different now that Heitkamp is in office. This week Politico ran an article about “Red-state Democrats” who “may break with White House.”
Conspicuously absent, despite the aforementioned vows of independence, is Heitkamp. But that’s probably for good reason. You see, per the article, the only “red-state Democrats” who are planning on standing up President Obama are those up for re-election in the next cycle. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid even has a plan in place to help protect those Democrats from having to take a position on controversial votes:
From guns to immigration to budget fights — especially possible cuts to the popular Medicare and Medicaid programs — these upcoming battles will expose the fault lines within the Democratic Party. Obama will have to juggle the political needs of red-state Democrats even as he tries to outmaneuver a House GOP leadership pulled to the right by its hardliners.
Reid singles out those who are up for reelection and does whatever he can to promote their agenda and protect them from politically charged votes, aides said Friday.
That’s instructive for two reasons.
First, it means that Heitkamp is probably going to have to toe the party line in her first years in office. With Reid giving some Democrats up for re-election in this cycle a pass, he’ll need votes from people like Heitkamp on controversial issues. That will put Heitkamp, who barely held a seat Demcorats have controlled since 1960 with less than 1% of the vote, in an awkward position for this first Congress of her term. But that’s not all bad for Heitkamp because…
Second, Senate terms are long, and as Heitkamp nears the end of her six years in office she’ll be able to count on her party giving her a pass on controversial votes just as the Democrats mentioned in the article are getting a pass this cycle. Americans have short attention spans, and by the time Heitkamp is starting her campaign for re-election in 2018 most aren’t going to remember her controversial votes from two cycles in the past.
We talk often of how politicians say one thing back at home while doing another in Washington DC. This is one tool they use in accomplishing that feat and Heitkamp, despite her vows for “independence,” will be playing the game along with everyone else.