While former Senator Heidi Heitkamp flirts with the possibility of being the new president of the University of North Dakota (she should be considered for the job if she wants it, but I’m not convinced she really wants it) she’s also launching a new political initiative aimed at helping Democratic candidates convince rural voters the Democratic party doesn’t hate them.
That is a heavy lift for a party currently in the thrall of people like Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Also, Heitkamp is an odd choice to lead the effort given that she didn’t do a particularly good job of appealing to rural voters just last year when she failed to win re-election.
But that’s only if we think of this as Heitkamp working to help Democrats nationally as opposed to helping herself locally.
I’m hardly the only skeptic of this new cause, which has been branded the “One Country Project.” In the Washington Post, Phillip Bump writes that the focus of Heitkamp’s project is the 2020 presidential election, and that’s problematic because “shifting a national message to appeal to a rural North Dakota voter almost necessarily means shifting it away from an urban voter in a state such as Florida.”
That is a fair point, and a real dilemma for Democrats.
For Heitkamp, this is about rehabilitating her political image for the sake of future ambitions. Specifically, it’s about the former Senator maybe taking another swing at running for governor (she lost a race for that office against John Hoeven back in 2000).
There are a couple of good reasons to think this way.
One is that Heitkamp has never been much for political altruism. Her politicking is almost always self serving. So much so that a consistent gripe from within the ranks of the North Dakota Democratic Party is that Heitkamp’s ambitions have been smothering for other candidates.
Heitkamp’s involvement in this project is almost certainly in service to her own ends. She does for herself. For others, not so much.
Another is that Heitkamp, despite winning just one statewide election in the last 20 years, is still the strongest candidate North Dakota Democrats have. There is a gubernatorial election on the ballot this election cycle. It’s the job Heitkamp has always wanted, and who else are Democrats going to run against Republican incumbent Doug Burgum?
According to her most recent filing with the FEC, Heitkamp still has over $6 million sitting in her Senate campaign, and there are no restrictions on donating all of that money to her own campaign for state office.
To put that figure into perspective, Burgum raised over $1.8 million for his 2016 campaign, though admittedly his general election opponent in that race wasn’t very competitive. My point is that Heitkamp’s Senate race left overs are already multiples of what a typical North Dakota gubernatorial campaign raises.
Which brings me back to what Heitkamp is doing now. Her outreach to rural voters isn’t about helping Democratic presidential candidates.
It’s about helping herself.
It’s about rehabilitating her image in North Dakota, which took a drubbing during that ugly loss in 2018.
Later this year, or perhaps early next year, Heitkamp will begin polling again to see if it’s working. She’ll play coy with the media to generate a lot of will-she-or-won’t-she buzz, and if her polling is strong I think she’d absolutely run for governor.
She may run even if her polling is merely mediocre. At this point she really has nothing to lose, and the Democrats have a lot to gain by getting her on the ballot in another election cycle.