In North Dakota, Trump Gives Nod to Democrat Heitkamp
If President Trump's trip to North Dakota on Wednesday was designed to bully the state's lone Democratic lawmaker, Heidi Heitkamp, into supporting his tax reform plans, he may have boosted her re-election campaign instead.
Trump invited Sen. Heitkamp to travel with him to Bismarck on Air Force One and called her a "good woman" after summoning her onto the event stage outside an oil refinery.
For a Democrat fighting to keep her seat next year in a state Trump won by 36 points, the senator's day could not have gone much better. Trump's tax push has yet to be written as legislation, and a vote still remains a hypothetical. Heitkamp's appearance with the president, then, cost her little in exchange for what amounted to an endorsement of her willingness to work across the aisle.
“You listening, Heidi? She’s listening. She heard that. We’re not going to put her on the spot," Trump said during his speech at the Andeavor Refinery in Mandan, N.D., to a crowd of 700 invited guests. "We’ll have your support. I hope we have your support.”
The president reminded the audience that Ronald Reagan's successful 1986 tax reform effort won the support of a Democratic senator from North Dakota. On the flight back to Washington, the president's key advisers on tax policy huddled with Heitkamp and the members of North Dakota's congressional delegation over a dinner of lasagna, Caesar salad and cannoli.
Trump's North Dakota event came after he defied his own Republican congressional leadership by agreeing to a proposal by Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi to attach disaster relief funding to a short-term debt ceiling increase and continuing resolution for the budget.
The Heitkamp overture stood in contrast to Trump's visit last week to Missouri, where he told attendees at a similar event to vote Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill (who did not attend) out of office next year if she voted against tax legislation. And it frustrated Republicans, who saw Trump criticize Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake at a rally in Phoenix last month and meet with his potential primary opponents.
"A lot of Republicans are mystified that he viciously attacked a few Republicans but treats the Democrats with kid gloves," said GOP strategist Brian Walsh, a former spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "Why wasn't he using this trip to promote a potential opponent against her? The White House leaked out they were meeting with primary challengers to Jeff Flake, but they're giving [Heitkamp] a trip on Air Force One?"
Indeed, Trump made little ado over one potential opponent, North Dakota's at-large congressman, Kevin Cramer, who joined the president, Heitkamp and Sen. John Hoeven on the plane. Cramer has not entered the Senate race, but has been unfailingly supportive of the administration, even coming under fire earlier this year for backing controversial comments made by former White House spokesman Sean Spicer.
On the plane ride home, Cramer told reporters he thought Trump was effective in getting Heitkamp on board for the GOP tax plan, even though she has not committed her vote. "As I told the president in front of her, the goal is to make her a better senator. So let’s hope that after this she is a better senator — that she is a convert to our position,” he said.
State Sen. Tom Campbell, the only announced Republican in the race, is running as an outsider businessman and ally to Trump.
"America sent Washington a message. And his name is Donald Trump," Campbell says in a campaign video, noting that he'd support a border wall, tax reform, and term limits.
Trump's popularity and Republican control in the state make Heitkamp among the most vulnerable Democrats up for re-election next year. While the modus operandi of a Democrat in the Trump era is to oppose the president at nearly every turn, lawmakers like Heitkamp have to employ nuanced strategies.
And so, on Wednesday, Heitkamp ventured where most in her party wouldn't dare: on a 1,500-mile plane ride with the president in the morning, and on a stage with him in the afternoon. The first-term senator has said she would support the president when it served her constituents, and would disagree with him on issues when she saw fit. It's a guidebook followed by a handful of other Democratic senators up for re-election in deep red states, where losses would shrink the reach of their party. Heitkamp is the last statewide Democrat left in her state.
While North Dakota has become increasingly Republican, voters there have shown openness to splitting their tickets. Heitkamp won her first term in 2012, the year Mitt Romney took the state by 20 points. But Heitkamp's victory was narrow, defeating Republican Rep. Rick Berg by about 3,000 voters, or roughly one percentage point. Trump outperformed Romney last year, and Republicans have been eyeing the Senate seat as a prime pickup opportunity.
But Democrats believe Heitkamp is well positioned, pointing to the $3 million she has in cash on hand without without having officially announced her re-election campaign. While top Republican recruits have lined up to challenge Democrats in similar states, the race in North Dakota has been slow to form.
Heitkamp's appearance with Trump demonstrated an attempt to chart her own narrative before Republicans define her in what is expected to be a challenging race. The North Dakota Democrat met with Trump during the transition and was briefly considered for a Cabinet position. Republicans would have relished the opportunity to remove Heitkamp from the Senate and appoint one of their own to the seat instead, but Trump ultimately decided against it. Heitkamp has voted with him about 50 percent of the time, according to data collected by the website 538, putting her just behind West Virginia's Joe Manchin, who is also up for re-election next year. Heitkamp was one of a few Democrats to support Supreme Court Nominee Neil Gorsuch and other controversial nominations, including Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt. She was one of only three Democratic senators who refused to sign a party letter issuing demands on tax reform.
But she has also shown distance on key issues. She voted against efforts to repeal Obamacare, for example, as well as other efforts from the administration to repeal some regulations. She voted against several of Trump's Cabinet nominees, including Steve Mnuchin for Treasury secretary, who is leading the efforts on tax reform. She was critical of Trump's travel ban and his response to the racial violence in Charlottesville, Va., last month. And on Tuesday, Heitkamp condemned Trump for ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program initiated by President Obama.
"Ending the DACA program is simply cruel," she said in a statement.
Democrats in the state say Heitkamp's efforts to establish a relationship with Trump are to her benefit. A ride on Air Force One provided the opportunity to talk about local issues, like the recent drought, or tax reforms that could help farmers in the state.
"Nobody has the political situation Sen. Heitkamp has managed so well; it has its own nuance," said former Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy, who lost his seat to a Republican in 2010. "Only Heidi Heitkamp could have won her Senate race, and Heitkamp is by a long, long way the best chance Democrats have at keeping the seat."
But while Trump went easy on her at Wednesday's event, he doesn't plan to let her or other lawmakers up for re-election next year off the hook.
“Do your job to deliver for America, or find a new job," he warned during the speech in Mandan. "Do something else. Just do something else.”
Alexis Simendinger contributed to this report.