From late summer in 2016 to mid-winter in 2017 south central North Dakota was inundated by violent anti-pipeline activists.
Those extremists instigated violent conflict with law enforcement. They destroyed property. They harassed pipeline workers and citizens living in the region. All the while their activities were bolstered by Democratic President Barack Obama who refused to close down protests illegally established on federal land and refused to take action to facilitate completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
It wasn’t until President Donald Trump took office, and promptly gave final approval to the pipeline, that the protesters finally left (leaving behind untold tons of garbage and human waste).
But for months during the protests Senator Heidi Heitkamp, perhaps uniquely situated as a Democrat to persuade President Obama to handle the situation differently, was largely silent. No doubt for political reasons. She couldn’t afford to offend Native American voters, who were key to her narrow 2012 election victory, or voters generally in the region.
So the Senator was silent. And now, in a new ad, the NDGOP is pointing that out:
That might be one of the most consequential television ads of the 2018 election cycle. Even defending herself from it is going to be hard. If she comes out forcefully against the protests, she’s going to alienate the Native American vote she needs to win. If she goes silent about this criticism, or is in any way perceived as condoning the protests, she’s going to lose votes in the rest of the state.
NBC News has already picked up on the ad, and they got a response from the Heitkamp campaign:
Heitkamp’s campaign pushed back, citing an award she received from the Morton County Sheriff’s office and the Morton County Commission “in recognition of outstanding and dedicated service to the citizens of Morton County during the Dakota Access Pipeline Protest.” And a local rancher impacted by the protests, Steve Tomac, told NBC he remembers Heitkamp as “very involved” in the communities impacted by DAPL.
I’m not sure we can rely on Mr. Tomac providing an unbiased view of Heitkamp’s handling of the protests. He’s very active in Democratic politics in the state, and in fact served in the Legislature as a Democrat from 1997 to 2002. It’s no surprise the Heitkamp campaign tapped him to muddy the waters.
As for the Morton County Commission award, all three members of the federal delegation got it. It may as well be a participation trophy.
Make no doubt about it, this is a damaging ad for Heitkamp. No North Dakotan who was living in the state during the protests will believe that Heitkamp behaved like a leader during them. Instead she made a political calculation, and chose to stand on the sidelines while extremists ran amok.