This Is Why Senator Heitkamp Has to Make Voters Hate Her Opponent


Sen. Heidi Heitkamp is cheered on by delegates at her nomination for the United States Senate Saturday at the ND Democratic convention. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

I’ve long predicted that the 2018 U.S. Senate election will be one of the ugliest North Dakota has ever seen.

Part of the foundation for that prediction lays in the way the incumbent, Senator Heidi Heitkamp, campaigned in 2012. She ran a vicious campaign that year, brutalizing her opponent Rick Berg with her surrogates painting the man as a “slum lord” and worse.

But the other part lays in the tricky political calculus Heitkamp must pull off to win re-election, which is something Mike Jacobs writes about in his column today. The whole thing is worth your time to read, but the thrust of his argument is that Heitkamp must somehow appeal to red state, Trump state Republican voters without causing disillusionment among her liberal voting base.

“Like smokers, Democrats aren’t being replaced,” Jacobs writes, referring to the fact that North Dakota’s Democratic voters are dying out while younger generations in the state are trending Republican:

It is therefore even more critical for Heitkamp to get every Democratic vote in this election than it was in 2012. It’s also a bigger challenge. Democrats might be energized to vote against Trump, but perhaps not enough to support a Democratic candidate whose voting record is the most-pro- Trump among Senate Democrats. In effect, Heitkamp must appeal to Republicans while shoring up her support among Democrats. Cramer’s only challenge is to hang onto his base and to draw back those Republicans who strayed in 2012, not because they didn’t like the Republican Party but because they didn’t like the party’s candidate.

In other words, Cramer can win simply by appealing to Republicans. Heitkamp must win by appealing to Republicans while not alienating Democrats.

Not an impossible task, but not an easy one either. Particularly given that factions of Heitkamp’s Democratic base are already really, really annoyed with her.

Heitkamp faced a challenge for the party’s endorsement from firefighter Dustin Peyer, whose supporters even went so far as to collect signatures for a primary bid at the NDGOP’s state convention (Peyer ultimately didn’t file).

And remember that Heitkmap was actually heckled at the North Dakota Democratic Party’s reorganizing event last year.

When Heitkamp threw some shade at #TheResistance against President Trump Bob Valeu, former chairman of Heitkamp’s state party, said it was the “final straw” for him.

Back in September of 2016 Democrats who were working on raising funds for the party told me they were getting an earful from the base about Heitkamp. “I couldn’t get an ask in without listening to a ten minute rant about what a waste of money she was,” my source told me. “And these were calls that normally would have been easy.”

The dissatisfaction with Heitkamp is by no means a majority point of view in her state party – the one she says he’s loyal to over her national party – but it is real.

How does Heitkamp draw her left wing base out to the voting booth while still appealing to Republican voters willing to cross the partisan divide? By painting her opponent as a bad guy. One not fit for office.

There really is no other path to victory for Heitkamp. She can’t move to the left politically without losing crossover voters. She can’t move to the right without shaving voters off her base.

In 2012 Heitkamp won by just 2,936 votes. That is a razor thin margin. If Heitkamp loses voters on the right or the left, she probably doesn’t get re-elected.

But if she can use her millions in out of state contributions to turn the race into referendum on what an awful person Congressman Kevin Cramer is, maybe she can win.