Heitkamp votes frustrate some Dems, but party still behind her

BISMARCK -- When asked once if she voted with her heart or with her constituents, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said she responded, "I vote with my head." But several of her recent votes have some Democrats scratching their own heads over what seems like a...

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy listens to U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., during a roundtable discussion about renewable fuels on Friday, Feb. 28, 2014, at Bismarck State College. (Mike Nowatzki / Forum News Service)

BISMARCK -- When asked once if she voted with her heart or with her constituents, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said she responded, “I vote with my head.”

But several of her recent votes have some Democrats scratching their own heads over what seems like a more right-leaning senator than the person they helped narrowly elect over U.S. Rep. Rick Berg in 2012.

Heitkamp was one of only three Democrats who helped pass resolutions Nov. 17 disapproving of the Environmental Protection Agency’s stricter greenhouse gas emission standards for new and existing coal-fired power plants. She co-sponsored both resolutions, which the White House said President Obama will veto.

She also voted with majority Republicans on the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline that Obama shot down earlier this month, and helped pass a Senate resolution to do away with the administration’s “Waters of the United States” rule that could expand federal jurisdiction over some state waters.

Heitkamp said she doesn’t focus on toeing the party line.


“I’d rather be at odds with my Democratic caucus than at odds with the interests of the people of my state and good public policy,” she said.

But the immediate past chairman of the state Democratic-NPL Party said he has heard from some state Democrats frustrated with some of Heitkamp’s votes.

“It does present a rather interesting dilemma for the party structure that is trying to convince the voters that they should vote for progressives in the state,” Bob Valeu said.

The executive director of the state Republican Party was blunter in her assessment.

“I think the Democrats recognize the political game she’s playing and that she needs to vote certain ways to keep her support in North Dakota,” Roz Leighton said.

Still, Valeu said Democrats stand firm in their support of Heitkamp.

“I feel very comfortable supporting her 100 percent,” he said. “While I may not particularly agree with her on every vote, I believe she is the best national leader North Dakota has.”



Voting her way

As part of the 113th Congress during her first two years in the Senate, Heitkamp voted against the majority of her party less than 8 percent of the time, according to votes listed on, a website operated jointly by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Sunlight Foundation and the Participatory Politics Foundation that tracks whether lawmakers voted with or against their party.

So far in the 114th Congress, from Jan. 8 through Nov. 19, Heitkamp has voted against her party about 22 percent of the time, a Forum News Service tally found.

On key votes, as tracked by, Heitkamp has gone against her party on 15 of 89 votes, or 17 percent of the time.

Those figures don’t make her an anomaly. While lists Heitkamp as voting with her party 88 percent of the time overall, it lists North Dakota Republican Sen. John Hoeven at 85 percent and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican with whom Heitkamp has co-sponsored legislation, at 65 percent. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., widely considered less of a moderate than Heitkamp and Hoeven, is listed at 92 percent.


Trying to find balance

Valeu said Heitkamp’s votes defending the coal industry should surprise no one. She sat on the board of Bismarck-based Dakota Gasification Co. for more than a decade before being elected to the Senate.


But he said he was “extremely disappointed” in Heitkamp’s April 2013 votes with Republicans to defeat gun control legislation in the wake of the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 children and six adults.

Heitkamp and three other Democrats voted with 41 GOP senators to defeat legislation to expand background checks for gun purchases. She told The Associated Press afterward that she “stood firm and protected the Second Amendment rights of North Dakotans.”

Valeu said the party is organized to motivate and convince voters in red-state North Dakota to change – “in this particular case, to change from a strict ultra-conservative point of view to a more progressive point of view in dealing with critical issues.”

“I think Heidi is trying to find that balance, because I think in her heart, she is a progressive,” he said. “She is perplexed daily on how to address these from a vote standpoint, and I can certainly understand that.”

Current Democratic-NPL Party Executive Director Robert Haider said the party takes pride in being the “big tent” party.

“We’re never going to find people that agree on every single issue, so it’s to be expected, but we’re thankful that Sen. Heitkamp is in D.C. and she’s spending time looking into these issues and making sure that the votes she takes have the best interests of all North Dakotans in mind,” he said.


Trustee vs. delegate

Robert Wood, an associate professor of political science at the University of North Dakota, said Democratic senators from red states and GOP senators from blue states have to “walk that tightrope balance” of not upsetting the majority of their constituents back home while conforming to their national party as much as possible for when it comes time to seek campaign funds for re-election.

He referred to the two models of how elected officials should behave: as trustees who believe voters elected them to exercise their own judgment when making decisions, or as delegates whose decisions should reflect how a majority of their constituents feel.

Most literature suggests that the majority of politicians bounce back and forth between the two models, but they’re most willing to act as a delegate when it’s an issue of high interest to their constituents, Wood said.

For Heitkamp, on issues such as lifting the oil export ban, the Keystone XL pipeline or the farm bill, “She’s got to vote with those constituencies if she wants to have any chance of re-election,” he said.

Heitkamp, who said she hasn’t decided whether she will seek a second term in 2018, said she’s not about to change her approach to public life.

“At the end of the day, people put you there to exercise your judgment because they can’t be hearing the testimony and doing the studying and doing the kind of work. That’s my job,” she said.

Leighton suggested Heitkamp’s vote in favor of the Iran nuclear deal in September went against the delegate model.

“Overwhelmingly North Dakotans did not support the president’s bad deal, and then she still voted for it when she knew the president had enough votes to get it through,” she said.

Heitkamp said she listened to experts and America’s allies in coming to her decision on Iran, and the deal didn’t take military intervention off the table.

“I think once people understood that, I think there was a sense that, well, let’s find out if they live up to this agreement. If they don’t, the agreement’s off,” she said.


‘I’ll stand up to Hillary’

Just as they tried to link Heitkamp to Obama and Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2012, Republicans now are hammering on Heitkamp for her support of Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton, whose support for stricter rules on greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants and opposition to lifting the oil export ban unless it’s part of a broader plan threaten those key industries in North Dakota, they warn.

Heitkamp said there’s “a lot” she and Clinton don’t agree on, but she said critics of the former secretary of state and New York senator don’t talk about her desire to reduce student debt, make the tax code more responsive to working families and secure Social Security and Medicare.

“Just like I’ve stood up to this administration on issues that I don’t agree with them on, I’ll stand up to Hillary Clinton,” she said. “I think it’s unfortunate that she’s taken the positions she’s taken. I believe that we’ll have an opportunity to revisit those once she gets into office.”

Reach Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at .

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