Senator Heidi Heitkamp Didn’t Show up for Her First Debate With Congressman Kevin Cramer


Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., talks to retired truck drivers about the pension crisis that threatens their livelihood Tuesday, April 3, 2018, at Marlin's restaurant in Fargo. Tu-Uyen Tran / The Forum

Over the weekend the North Dakota Newspaper Association held their first debate between North Dakota’s candidates for federal office.

Well, two of those candidates anyway. Republican state Senator Kelly Armstrong squared off with Democratic opponent Mac Schneider. Each are seeking North Dakota’s lone U.S. House seat. Observers in the room tell me the two were pretty evenly matched, which perhaps isn’t all that surprising given this Jack Dura report in the Bismarck Tribune which tells us that the two candidates didn’t find much to disagree on either.

Let’s hope those two contrast themselves better going forward.

One other federal candidate did show up to debate. Congressman Kevin Cramer, Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, spoke to attendees before the House candidates went at it.

He didn’t get to debate because incumbent Senator Heidi Heitkamp didn’t show up.

“We invited Cramer and Heitkamp to appear May 5 at our annual convention. It was date specific because that’s when our members will be in town,” NDNA President Steve Andrist told me last month on April 5 when I inquired about Heitkamp’s decision not to attend the event. “Cramer’s staff said that date works for him, but Heitkamp’s staff said her schedule was already full that day, and therefore could not make it. So it would be wrong to say she withdrew or declined, but we are disappointed she is unable to attend on the date of our meeting.”

Andrist added that both Cramer and Heitkamp said they were open to future debates.

In another context this might not be a very big deal. Sometimes scheduling just doesn’t work, especially when it hinges on being available on one specific date.

But it’s not clear what exactly Heitkamp was doing that she couldn’t debate. Both her official and campaign Twitter feeds were full of the usual sort of propaganda the Senator’s staff churns out daily, but nothing which showed the Senator busy with some other important task on Saturday.

Same for the Senator’s Facebook page. The news and press releases on her official Senate website don’t help either.

This is probably the biggest political competition of Heitkamp’s political career. If she was going to skip the first debate in that competition, don’t you think she’d want to explain why?

Did anyone bother to ask why? I sent an inquiry to the Senator’s official and campaign staff, but I’m not hopeful of a response since they typically ignore me.

Which brings me to another point: Heitkamp’s steadfast refusal to engage her critics in the media.

The Senator and her staff ignore my weekly requests for interviews. Television commentator Chris Berg and talk radio host Scott Hennen get the same treatment. Even non-opinion journalists have complained to me about the tight controls the Senator and her staff put on access.

What this adds up to is a portrait of an incumbent who likes to posture herself as a woman-of-the-people but isn’t all that interested in communicating with the public candidly and in diverse venues.

Did the Senator really have a scheduling conflict on Saturday? Or was it yet another act of avoidance from the Senator?