Heidi Heitkamp’s Smartest Political Move for 2018 Was Making Herself an Ally of 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

I wrote in my print column a couple of weeks ago that 2018 campaign for incumbent Senator Heidi Heitkamp’s seat in Congress had already begun.

Given the sustained political assault on Congressman Kevin Cramer, the most talked about potential challenger for Heitakmp, since that column published the words I wrote seem downright prescient.

Heitkamp’s campaign leaked strong fundraising numbers to the press. Heitkamp’s allies at Planned Parenthood staged a protest outside Cramer’s Fargo offices and attempted to manufacture some fake news about his staff supposedly calling the police.  Stories about Cramer’s appearances on local talk radio shows were almost certainly planted at CNN by operatives friendly to Heitkamp.

Add in to that subtle campaign against Cramer some strong polling numbers for the incumbent from Morning Consult (she’s at 60 percent approval) and it all adds up to a very good week for Heitkamp and a not so good week for her potential challengers.

Chief among them Cramer.

My Democratic friends have been talking about what impact Trump might have on North Dakota’s 2018 election. They’re thinking that an unpopular President could hurt North Dakota Republicans. They’re wrong.

If Heitkamp is successful in a potential 2018 campaign (remember, she hasn’t said officially that she’s running either) I think it will have less to do with political attacks and ginned up outrage than one Donald J. Trump.

My Democratic friends have been talking about what impact Trump might have on North Dakota’s 2018 election. They’re thinking that an unpopular President could hurt North Dakota Republicans.

They’re wrong. However unpopular Trump may be nationally on election day next year he’s not going to hurt Republicans in North Dakota. Trump’s brand of Republican populism is like cat nip to a majority of North Dakota voters. He’s not going to be a political liability.

Don’t take my word for it. Heitkamp knows this as well as anyone.

It’s why Heitkamp has voted for most of Trump’s cabinet nominees. It’s why Heitkamp broke ranks with her party and voted to confirm Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. It’s why Heitkamp has been mostly cheering Trump’s roll back of Obama-era environmental regulations detested by the energy and agriculture industries. It’s why Heitkamp was no doubt happy to meet with the President-elect at Trump Tower in New York during his transition when speculation was rampant that North Dakota’s junior Senator might join his cabinet.

“Trump’s wooing her did not help,” one NDGOP strategist told me over the weekend.

It’s why Heitkamp has been comparing herself, favorably, to a man her political party likes to paint as America’s very own Hitler.

“I think (Trump) has a lot of energy. I think that’s a fair way to say it. He’s a little like me. He’s not a linear thinker,” Heitkamp told the Grand Forks Herald last month. “The one thing I do believe is that he’s myopically focused on helping working men and women in this country, and bringing back economic opportunities to people who get up every morning and go to work and don’t necessarily put on a suit and tie.”

This is smart politics by Heitkamp.

Cramer was an early backer of Trump among Republicans, both in Congress and here in North Dakota. Yet it’s Heitkamp who has, at least at this early point in the 2018 cycle, most benefited from Trump’s election to office.

This close relationship to Trump may be earning Heitkamp heckling from the progressives in her own political party, but those people aren’t who Heitkamp needs to win.

She needs North Dakota’s moderate, Republican-minded voters to flip their ballots to her, and she’s doing it by crafting an image of herself as a pragmatic, centrist Democrat willing to work with a President her own political party vilifies.

The wild card is that Trump himself could easily shatter this image for Heitkamp if he campaigns against her for Cramer or whoever the challenger is.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and the host of the Rob (Re)Port on Fargo-based WDAY AM970 from 1-2pm weekdays.

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