What Does Heidi Heitkamp's 2016 Announcement Mean For 2018?

Political prognostication is fun! When vacancy opens in an office as consequential as governor, people like to speculate about who might or might not run for the office. We’ve been doing a lot of that here on SAB recently after Governor Jack Dalrymple’s announced retirement, and before it quiets down for a while (until candidates stop saying “I might run” and start officially organizing), let me get in one last bit of speculation.

Yesterday we got news that Senator Heidi Heitkamp has decided not to run for governor in 2016. What I’m wondering is what that announcement means for Heitkamp in 2018 when she must campaign to keep her Senate seat.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]…when you think of how narrow Heitkamp’s victory was in 2012, her tacit admission that she probably couldn’t win in 2016, and the likelihood that she’ll face an aggressive, competent, and well-funded Republican in 2018 (Kevin Cramer, anyone?) you have to think that the future looks pretty bleak for the Senator.[/mks_pullquote]

Before I tell you what I think, let me ask you to first stipulate to a couple of things.

First, Heidi Heitkamp really, really wants to be governor. Her 2000 campaign loss against John Hoeven, who would go on to be governor for a decade, was a stinging one for Heitkamp. The only blemish, really, on an otherwise extremely successful political career. I think it’s clear that Heitkamp has coveted the governor’s office ever since.

Second, and following from the first point, Heitkamp would have run for governor if she thought she could win. I think what Heitkamp was telling us yesterday wasn’t that she didn’t want to run for governor, but that she didn’t think she could be successful running for governor.

That’s an important distinction, and it has implications for 2018.

Keep in mind that while Heitkamp’s 2012 election win over Republican Rick Berg was fêted by Democrats and the media because it was an upset victory over a Republican in a Republican state during an election cycle that, overall, favored Republicans it was an extremely narrow win. Heitkamp’s margin of victory over Berg, who ran a really ham-fisted campaign, was less than 3,000 votes.

In other words, Heitkamp won by running an excellent campaign against a really poor campaign. And she only barely won, at that.

So let’s come back to 2015. Heitkamp doesn’t want to run for an office she clearly covets because she doesn’t think she can win. Part of the reason she probably thinks she can’t win is because she’d undoubtedly have faced a Republican running a much more competent campaign than Rick Berg ran.

Which is probably going to be the case in 2018 as well.

Certainly, 2018 will have a different dynamic. Heitkamp will be an incumbent running for re-election, not a Senator trying mid-term to make a leap to the governor’s office. But when you think of how narrow Heitkamp’s victory was in 2012, her tacit admission that she probably couldn’t win in 2016, and the likelihood that she’ll face an aggressive, competent, and well-funded Republican in 2018 (Kevin Cramer, anyone?) you have to think that the future looks pretty bleak for the Senator.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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