Like North Dakota’s whooping cranes and black-footed ferrets, Heidi Heitkamp is part of an endangered species. Less than two years from now, the first-term Democratic senator will be running for re-election in a state where Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 36 percentage points. Even for a centrist as popular as Heitkamp, that’s a mountain to climb.
Some of the reasons for Trump’s lopsided victory in North Dakota are peculiar to him, but others can also be laid at the feet of the Democratic Party. Democratic presidential candidates make little effort to appeal to rural voters, who make up most of North Dakota’s population and who care less about transgender bathrooms or Katy Perry than about guns and growing things.
Heitkamp is one of 25 Democrats defending U.S. Senate seats in a post-Trump world. A few weeks ago she had a dinner of Chinese takeout for colleagues from four other states that went overwhelmingly for Trump: West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, Indiana’s Joe Donnelly and Montana’s Jon Tester. The consensus was that that there’s a fierce hunger for change that favored Trump and that Democratic candidates must find a way to satisfy it. No one was sure how.
Heitkamp has already caught a break. North Dakotans who voted for Trump saw him favor her with an hour-long visit on Dec. 2, and speculation swirled that he might ask her to become secretary of agriculture.
Heitkamp doesn’t have to change to appeal to Trump voters. She stands out in a Washington that is rightly called elite. From a town so small that Heitkamp says she and her six siblings made up 10 percent of the population, Heitkamp married a doctor and now has two grown children, and a full calendar every weekend.
Still, she won by only 1 percentage point in 2012. In the four years since, she’s worked to grow that margin with a near-compulsive attention to her neighbors’ concerns as a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee who’s walked the state with farmers and ranchers and can recite provisions of the Farm Bill.
She’s an advocate for Native Americans — she got funding for a commission to help bring health and social services to their remote communities — but she also advised them after the election to end protests aimed at preventing the Dakota Access pipeline from crossing territory once promised to the Standing Rock Sioux. (She told them they couldn’t win.)
North Dakota’s economic boom has ended with the cratering of oil prices, and Heitkamp won praise from conservative editorial pages when she got bipartisan support to lift a ban on oil exports — a relic of the gas shortages of the 1970s that Democrats had clung to — so that the state could sell its crude abroad. After a train crashed and burned near the town of Casselton in 2013, spilling 400,000 gallons of crude, she successfully introduced legislation enhancing training for first responders to incidents involving hazardous materials on the nation’s railways.
On social issues, Heitkamp is a moderate. She voted in favor of same-sex marriage, for instance, but so did the North Dakota Senate when it passed legislation in 2015 forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
On abortion, she’s against defunding Planned Parenthood but supports the 40-year-old ban on federal financing and state laws requiring parental consent. And on guns, it will be hard to find room to the right of her. Even after a gunman killed 26 people inside the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, she voted against expanding background checks for gun buyers.
Then there’s President Barack Obama’s health care plan. Republicans, including her likely opponent, Rep. Kevin Cramer, will be ready to put up a 30-second ad saying she’s for the controversial legislation if she sticks with Democrats fighting the Republicans’ promised repeal in early January. She’s long been for multiple fixes, but not for repeal without them. Try explaining that in a rebuttal ad. Nor would she support Trump’s draconian immigration crackdown.
Former Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, who retired in 2010, said his state “chooses a person, not a party.” Heitkamp makes the case that she’s as representative of her constituents as any Republican presidential candidate. She lives in the state, commuting to Washington. She was speaking for rural voters before Trump came on the scene. Her challenge is to keep doing so without looking like she’s rolling with the Trump tide.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a White House correspondent for Time and an editor at the New Republic.