FARGO — Heidi Heitkamp launched the last leg of her campaign for a second term in the U.S. Senate with the help of former Vice President Joe Biden in front of an energized crowd at the Fargo Air Museum on Thursday.
Several hundred people attended the event that kicked off the Democratic senator's statewide bus tour in the final days of the race against Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer. Biden, his voice quieted by laryngitis, sought to underscore the urgency of next week’s midterms by stating the “very character of America is on the ballot this year.”
Biden called for civility and bipartisanship in politics and portrayed Heitkamp as the kind of candidate voters are looking for in an age of divisiveness. He said Heitkamp has "remarkable courage and a fierce independence."
"There aren’t many folks in Washington who you can always count on to put their own convictions over their own partisan interests or their self-interest. And Heidi always does just that,” Biden said.
Biden criticized Cramer’s positions on health care and trade. He accused Republicans of “race-baiting” and “engaging in this politics of division,” something he said former North Dakota Republican senators Milton Young and Mark Andrews wouldn’t do.
“(I had) a lot of disagreements with them, but this is not your father’s Republican Party,” said Biden, who was a longtime Democratic senator from Delaware before ascending to the White House alongside former President Barack Obama.
Cramer said those comments help create “the divide that (Biden) says he opposes” and argued he’s “not one of the more inspirational modern figures.”
The stump speech came less than a week before Election Day, but almost 100,000 North Dakotans have already cast a ballot in what’s expected to be the most expensive race in the state’s history. Heitkamp indicated her focus is now on encouraging voters to hit the polls.
“I think at some point, you have to say, ‘I need 150,000 votes,’” she told reporters after Biden’s speech. “I think we’ve identified them and we’re going to get them out.”
Heitkamp has trailed Cramer in the polls despite raising about five times the amount of campaign cash. She has shrugged off unfavorable polls, noting that she defied them six years ago to squeak into the Senate, where she has built a moderate brand representing a reliably red state.
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Democratic U.S. House candidate Mac Schneider urged the crowd to abide by what he called the “Journey rule,” referring to the classic rock band and its hit song, “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
The North Dakota race is seen as critical to Republican hopes of maintaining control of the Senate, where they currently hold a slim majority.
"Heidi Heitkamp supported the Obama-Biden agenda even when it was wrong for North Dakota," North Dakota Republican Party spokesman Jake Wilkins said in a statement. "Joe Biden won't be able to make North Dakota voters forget Heitkamp’s anti-North Dakota record."
Biden joked that he offered to campaign for or against Heitkamp, whichever would help her more. Heitkamp called Biden an “amazing leader” who can speak to bipartisanship, a constant theme of her campaign. She said they’re Democrats of the same mold.
“I think the Republican Party tends to invest in institutions and the Democrats tend to invest in people,” Heitkamp said. “That’s who Joe Biden is.”
Biden already stumped for Heitkamp in March at the Democratic-NPL statewide convention in Grand Forks, and he’s one of two potential 2020 presidential candidates campaigning with her this week. New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker will be in Mandan and on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation Friday.
President Donald Trump campaigned with Cramer in Fargo twice this year, and most recently, his eldest son Donald Trump Jr. appeared in Williston. Trump carried North Dakota by almost 36 percentage points, and his presidency has loomed large in the race.
Cramer said Biden’s appearance “reinforces all of the negatives of being a Democrat in North Dakota” and said the Democratic Party has become “detached from middle America.” But he acknowledged the former vice president’s visit might help Heitkamp drive her base to the polls.
“At this point, the case has already been made and determined in terms of what policy direction North Dakotans want to go. Now it’s down to the very mechanical issue of getting people out,” Cramer said.