Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s announcement on Sept. 13 that she would seek a second term wasn’t unexpected. The Democrat has been sounding more like a candidate in recent months, but there was always the possibility she would bow out.
The Senate race likely will be the most interesting contest in the 2018 election. Sen. Tom Campbell, R-Grafton, already has announced his intention to seek the Republican nomination for the Senate. Other possible Republican candidates are U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer and state Sen. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck. If Cramer should seek and get the nomination it would open the door for Becker or Campbell to run for the House. The Senate race could give North Dakota Republicans another compelling convention contest like the 2016 gubernatorial battle.
Political pundits have gone back and forth on the Senate contest, with some giving Heitkamp a slight re-election edge. Of course, it’s a long time to November 2018.
Heitkamp has been stressing her willingness and ability to work across the aisle with Republicans on key issues. She traveled with President Donald Trump and a load of Republicans on Air Force One when the president visited Bismarck-Mandan to give a tax speech. He openly courted her vote for his tax plan and called her a “good woman” after calling her to the stage. He also challenged her to vote for his tax plan.
It didn’t go unnoticed that Heitkamp revealed her re-election plans after being one of three Democrats invited to a White House dinner to discuss tax reform with the president and Republican lawmakers. She went on her brother’s radio program the next morning to announce her candidacy and told him "I really felt last night that there's an opportunity to do some good bipartisan work."
There has been some grumbling in the state Democratic Party about Heitkamp’s positions. Some feel she has been too conservative at the same time that Republicans are painting her as too liberal. Republicans cite her support of the Affordable Care Act and her vote against repealing methane emissions as examples. Some Democrats are disappointed by Heitkamp’s support of the Keystone XL pipeline. Still, Heitkamp’s endorsement by the Democratic convention seems assured.
Whoever is her Republican opponent it will be a good opportunity for a discussion of the issues. This race carries national significance because it will help determine which party controls the U.S. Senate. Republicans will counter Heitkamp’s argument that she can work across the aisle by arguing that North Dakotans need a Republican in the seat to guarantee the GOP agenda, which seems to be in alignment with the majority of North Dakota voters.
Heitkamp won the Senate seat in a close race with Rep. Rick Berg in 2012. There’s likely to be a Libertarian candidate in the Senate race and there’s no reason not to expect another tight contest. It would be helpful for Heitkamp if the Democrats could field some other strong candidates. Ben Hanson, 30, a Fargo Democrat and former state House member, has entered the U.S. House race. He doesn’t bring much name recognition to the contest.
There’s a lot of time until the party conventions and the 2018 election, but North Dakotans should expect an important U.S. Senate battle.