Heidi Heitkamp’s Love/Hate Relationship With Donald Trump


U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) arrives for a meeting with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower in New York, U.S., December 2, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar

UPDATE: As I wrote this news broke that Heitkamp is opposing Senator Jeff Session’s appointment as Attorney General. So add that to your calculus on her political future.

Senator Heidi Heitkamp made a big stink this last week over her “no” vote on the confirmation of Trump-nominated Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Some of that was just rote left wing politics. After all, in the not so distant past, it was safer for Democrats to be against same sex marriage (as Barack Obama was circa 2008) than for any sort of education choice. The teacher unions swing a big political stick in liberal politics, both at the national and local levels.

Opposing DeVos was a sop Heitkamp needed to make to her liberal base.

But in other ways Heitkamp has been awfully cozy with Trump. There was weeks of speculation that she might actually serve in his cabinet in one fashion or another, rumors Heitkamp did little to dispel. Heitkamp has made it clear she’ll vote for Trump’s nominee for Agriculture Secretary, and according to Politico the Senator will be meeting with Trump again tomorrow.

“A group of moderate Democratic senators will visit President Donald Trump at the White House on Thursday, according to congressional aides,” the report reads. “Democratic Sens. Jon Tester of Montana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia will meet with Trump, aides said. Some GOP senators and Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana were also invited to the meeting, which was first reported by USA Today.”

Trump needs buy-in from these Democrats to advance his agenda in the Senate, most notably his Supreme Court nominee.

But it’s also true that Heitkamp needs Trump.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]Here at the dawn of the 2018 election cycle one big unanswered question in North Dakota politics is whether or not Heitkamp will seek another term in the U.S. Senate.[/mks_pullquote]

Here at the dawn of the 2018 election cycle one big unanswered question in North Dakota politics is whether or not Heitkamp will seek another term in the U.S. Senate.

Most political observers I talk with on both sides of the political divide say she’ll run again. That there will be so much pressure from national Democrats who would see, rightly, her stepping down as handing over a Senate seat to Republicans that she’ll have to run.

But a SAB reader tapped into D.C. politics says things don’t look so certain. I’m told that even members of Heitkamp’s Senate staff aren’t sure if she’ll run again or not. Those are people with a pressing need to know given how those political decisions would shape their careers.

The problem for Heitkamp is that she’s stuck between a rock and a hard place. Her political party is treating the rise of President Trump as some great new evil, but candidate Trump got 63 percent of the vote in our state. Heitkamp, meanwhile, barely got 50 percent of the vote when she was first elected to this term in 2012.

If anything, North Dakota politics have shifted further to the right since then.

To be politically successful in 2018 Heitkamp must work with Trump enough to please most North Dakota voters, who are Trump supporters, while not alienating the crucial base of her party who see in Trump some sort of American Hitler.

Meanwhile, the Republicans are making no bones about targeting Heitkamp this cycle. The NRSC is already describing Heitkamp’s political career as “on life support.”

As I’ve noted before, DeVos was probably a safe place for Heitkamp to dissent from Trump. School choice, of which DeVos is a champion, is a bit of a non-starter in our rural state. A bill to create education savings accounts was just turned into a study in our state Legislature, which is something lawmakers do when they want to be rid of an issue without actually voting it down.

But there won’t be many of those opportunities for Heitkamp if she hopes to be re-elected. The more outspoken she is against Trump’s agenda will be a measure of how likely she is to run for another term. Or win, if she does run.