Blue Dog

Never Bet Against Senator Heidi Heitkamp, North Dakota’s Rising Star

North Dakota’s junior senator voted against background checks and for the Keystone pipeline. She’s also a big Hillary Clinton fan. The forthright freshman legislator is a study in contrasts.

Heidi Heitkamp is not a household name. Not yet.

But there’s buzz about the political future of the down to earth junior senator from North Dakota.

A presidential contender in 2020?

It’s an interesting proposition. And when you talk to her fans and question her predecessor and mentor, Kent Conrad, the answer is a definite yes.

“I’d trust Heidi with any responsibility she takes on,” says the former senator, lauding the 57-year-old freshman lawmaker for her “decency, intelligence, and common sense. She’d be an extraordinary president,” says Conrad. “The country would be lucky to have her.”

The plainspoken Heitkamp is the only Democrat to hold high office in the Red state and the first female elected to the Senate from North Dakota.

She made news in 2012 when she beat her conservative Republican opponent, Rick Berg, by a slim lead. It was the closest Senate race that year, and from the beginning she knew it would be a tight and tough fight.

“North Dakota is a state the president lost by 22 points, so it was very difficult to overcome that margin,” she says, sipping a Diet Coke in her Senate office, surrounded by colorfully upholstered furniture inherited from Senator Conrad.

She is not dismayed by her razor slim victory. On the contrary: “I’m the senator,” she says proudly, “I won by less than 1 percent of the total vote. We spent a lot of time on retail politics and fought for every one of those votes. A lot of people who voted for me said, ‘You know, we’re going to give her a shot and see how she does.’”

It didn’t hurt that Heitkamp had 95.5 percent name recognition. She was a popular, high profile figure around the state for three decades. The wife of family practitioner Darwin Lange and mother of two grown children, she served as state tax commissioner and attorney general. During her campaign for the governorship in 2000, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, now in remission. That experience, she says, made her more independent and willing to take risks.

The North Dakota native is the fourth of seven children raised in the small town of Matador, pop. 100, which she says prepared her for the vicissitudes of the Capitol: “Being right in the middle of seven bossy people—does that prepare me for being bipartisan, collaborative, and a compromiser? I’d say yes. I’ve been compromising and collaborating all my life.”

Heitkamp came to Washington personifying traditional values of the Old West: candor, consistency, hard work, and a sense of good faith and fair play.

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A pragmatist and a moderate, she serves as a role model for other Blue Dog women running for election in Red states. Her advice: lower the negative rhetoric and focus on your own abilities. “Too many people focus on discrediting the other candidate instead of promoting their own candidacy. All elections are choices. People want to know why you would be the better senator or governor or whatever.”

A Hillary Clinton fan, Heitkamp believes the former secretary of State will run, win, and be “an excellent president.”

“It’s just blind hope,” she admits. “I think she transcends gender. When people look at her, they don’t see male or female. They see a very accomplished, qualified candidate. She’s very collaborative, very open to a different way of looking at things, uber smart. She digs down and understands an issue.”

Democrats retaining the Senate in 2014 she views as “a challenge” and hedges her response: “If you had asked anyone in this town, would a Democrat win in North Dakota in 2012, they would have said no. Where I come from, we’re not going to predict outcomes ten months before we hold an election. That’s not what I’m about. I’m about if candidates can explain why they deserve reelection or why they are the better person to represent your state, then hard work pays off. And true hearts pay off, people who are true to who they are.”

It is this forthright manner that makes the homespun legislator an effective bipartisan advocate who makes no apologies for her beliefs or votes. “I think certain people in my party know me pretty well and I’m too old to change. I would have a hard time figuring out how I would not say what I really thought at this point in my life. I always say, don’t ever get between a post-menopausal woman and [what she thinks is] a good idea.”

She stung many liberals with her vote to block expanding background checks for gun purchasers (former White House chief of staff William Daley was so enraged he wrote a blistering attack in the Washington Post asking for his $2,500 campaign donation back.) But she was undeterred, insisting she had made her decision based on her law enforcement background. “I made a judgment call that [the proposed law’s] main purpose was to put more restrictions on law-abiding gun owners as opposed to really capturing criminals.”

She is also a strong proponent of the Keystone pipeline and says she made it clear early on that she supported the controversial project and would not bow to pressure. (Heitkamp was a director at Dakota Gasification for more than a decade.)

“There are people in my state who say, ‘Well, I worked really hard for you and I want you to oppose the Keystone pipeline.’ And I’m like, you had no expectation that I was ever going to be anything other than a staunch supporter of the Keystone pipeline. And as long as I don’t feel like I misled people about my position, I have no problem.”

The achievements she’s proudest of include promoting a comprehensive farm bill to aid western farmers and ranchers, a must for her state; working with the bipartisan Senate group that eventually ended the government shutdown; her commitment, as a member of the Indian Affairs Committee, to help neglected Native American children, a major priority; and her emergence as a key player on the Banking Committee, especially in housing finance reform.

Her colleague Bob Corker, Republican senator from Tennessee, calls her a winner.

“She’s a pleasure to work with,” he says, “very knowledgeable, direct, and very, very strong. Stronger than battery acid. And where I come from, that’s a compliment.”