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Commentary: Trump headwind too much for Heitkamp to overcome

Supporters of North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp gather at the DoubleTree by Hilton in West Fargo on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. David Samson / Forum News Service

FARGO — There was optimism in the hotel ballroom when the doors opened to the public at 8 p.m. Tuesday. There really was.

Despite the national projections, despite the uphill battle Sen. Heidi Heitkamp's supporters knew she faced, despite some early returns from eastern states that suggested the blue wave was going to be nothing of the sort. At least in the Senate.

It took only an hour for reality to set in and for the energy to drain. What some North Dakota Democratic-NPLers had hoped would be a shocking celebration instead turned into a farewell for their woman.

Fox News first called Heitkamp's race in favor of her Republican challenger, Rep. Kevin Cramer. That came at 9:10 p.m. Cramer's Twitter account followed shortly afterward with its own victory declaration. Other major networks followed suit.

Perhaps the key was the county political insiders see as the bellwether for statewide races. Stutsman County, home of Jamestown, went 57 percent to 42 percent in favor of Cramer. Stutsman often mirrors statewide results. It did in 2012, when Heitkamp defeated favored Republican Rick Berg to keep Sen. Kent Conrad's seat in the hands of Democrats for six more years.

There was a bit of history with Heitkamp's defeat. The seat she held had been in Democratic control since 1960. Quentin Burdick won it then and held it until his death in 1992. His wife, Jocelyn Burdick, was appointed to hold the seat until a special election was held. Conrad, who kept a promise to not run for re-election for a seat he won in 1986, jumped into the election and won the seat over Republican Jack Dalrymple. Conrad retired in 2012, and Heitkamp shocked the nation by defeating Rick Berg by less than 3,000 votes.

North Dakota's three congressional seats are all held by Republicans — Cramer, Sen. John Hoeven and newly elected Rep. Kelly Armstrong.

The winds had been blowing this direction for some time. Heitkamp's victory six years ago was seen as a major upset, an anomaly based on a personally likable and recognizable candidate against the flawed Berg.

It was Donald Trump's election as president in 2016 that was the final dagger for Heitkamp and the Democrats. North Dakota fully embraced the populist Republican and his ideas on immigration, taxes, health care and — apparently — even trade.

Heitkamp tried to use Trump's trade war, which she maintained Tuesday night would be costly to North Dakota farmers and eventually the nation, in pleading with North Dakotans to send her back to Washington as an independent voice. Cramer vowed to support Trump in all of his policies, saying the long-term gain would outweigh short-term pain.

North Dakotans clearly sided with Trump and Cramer. It wasn't close. Rural areas that in 2012 supported Heitkamp flipped strongly to Cramer. It mirrored the state's flip to Trump.

Heitkamp took the stage at the DoubleTree by Hilton in West Fargo at about 10:30 p.m., wearing blue jeans and a smile. If the defeat was crushing, she didn't show it. The room of Democrats, suffering through another tough election night, chanted her name.

"Heidi! Heidi! Heidi! Heidi!"

Heitkamp sounded positive, upbeat and repeated what she had said from the first day Cramer entered the race at the urging of Trump.

"We knew when we started out this was a big headwind. It was interesting to hear people say, 'Oh, you know so-and-so is going to have a tough time because he's in a plus-8 district.' I said, 'I'm in a plus-36 district,'" Heitkamp said, indicating the percentage Trump won the state over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Heitkamp made no apologies for her consistent campaign themes. She touched on her political independence, opposing Trump's trade war, advocating that the Affordable Care Act mandate assuring people with preexisting conditions can get health insurance and protecting Social Security and Medicare.

She said she hopes Republicans will stand up for things like pre-existing protection coverage and Social Security because Democrats like her brought them to the forefront.

Heitkamp, a former state tax commissioner and attorney general, ran for governor in 2000 and lost to Hoeven. She was diagnosed with breast cancer during that campaign, which some believe cost her the race.

"We took some votes that a lot of people would criticize. When I left public life in 2000, I told myself that I didn't take every opportunity every time to do the right thing, to do the best thing," Heitkamp said, defending her Senate record. "A lot of times I did the easy thing.

"A lot of you know I had a health scare. And after that health scare, I decided you only have one chance in life and you have to make the decisions you think are the best decisions for the people, the best decisions for the future and also the best decisions for the children. So I went to Washington, D.C., not to be a rubber stamp for one political party or to make an easy, easy decision. I went to represent the people of North Dakota."

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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