Can the GOP Gain Senate Seats in States that Trump Won? Preliminary Analysis of Heidi Heitkamp By Luke Perry
Heidi Heitkamp faces a difficult reelection bid after her first term as Senator from North Dakota. President Trump won the state by over 30 points with 63 percent of the vote. His current 57 percent approval rating is just below his ceiling of 60 percent in West Virginia. “Few think any other Democrat could hold the seat.”
Senator Heitkamp was elected in 2012 after the retirement of her boss, Senator Kent Conrad. Heitkamp defeated Rick Berg by one point. Berg served for decades in the state legislature, prior to being elected North Dakota's at-large House representative in 2010, defeating the Democratic incumbent. Heitkamp previously served as Tax Commissioner and Attorney General, and unsuccessfully ran for governor.
Heitkamp believes she brings “an understanding of rural America” to the position. “I wake up every day thinking about Hankinson, thinking about Mantador,” her hometown, “thinking about what those places might look like in 10-15 years and what are the opportunities for rural people, people like us who live in and grew up in those communities, who raise our kids there.”
Heitkamp was one of three Democrats to vote in favor of confirming Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court. She was “appalled” by how Merrick Garland’s nomination was handled, but “didn’t judge Judge Gorsuch by that,” and understood his selection as a consequence of losing the presidential election.
Senator Heitkamp supported twelve of Trump’s sixteen cabinet nominees. Heitkamp was considered for a Cabinet post, which could have created a coveted open seat for Republicans. Heitkamp didn’t rule out serving the President, but was encouraged by Democratic Senate leadership not to do so.
Heitkamp has regularly advocated for a bipartisan approach to policy making, particularly with divisive issues like healthcare. Heitkamp described the anti-Trump resistance movement as a “waste of my time.” “Why would I be there if all I’m there to do is say no?” Heitkamp asked, “So that’s not persuasive.” The Senator has voted half the time in alignment with President Trump and half the time opposed.
Senator Heitkamp differs with the President when it comes to Russia. She supported independent investigation of the 2016 election. Heitkamp said "these investigations are about defending ourselves from cyberattacks that our intelligence officials have traced back to Russia and about making sure we stop any nation that seeks to nefariously influence or interfere in our government." Heitkamp later supported a special prosecutor after the firing of James Comey “raises far more questions than it answers.”
Senator Heitkamp has been critical of President Trump’s recent handling of the unrest and violence in Charlottesville, like many other Senators. Heitkamp tweeted: “Must explicitly condemn hateful, racist white supremacists who violently attacked & intimidated in #Charlottesville. No other way around it.”
The Cook Political Report classifies the North Dakota Senate race as “likely Democratic.” Sabato’s Crystal Ball calls the race a “toss-up.” The reality is probably somewhere in between.
93 percent of Senate incumbents were reelected in 2016, exceeding post-World War II norms. Senator Heitkamp has a 60 percent approval rating in North Dakota. This, along with her apolitical approach to governance, suggests she is in a formidable position to be reelected. At the same time, her narrow election in 2012, and the perpetual uncertainty Donald Trump has brought to American politics, prevents certitude.
Luke Perry (@PolSciLukePerry) is Chair and Professor of Government at Utica College.