Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Should Heidi Heitkamp Run for Governor or Senator?

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND)
If there is an official queen of The Many Rantings of John, it's probably not Meryl Streep or Audra McDonald or Shirley MacLaine, even though I find myself writing about them constantly (the king is clearly Darren Criss).  No, it would be Heidi Heitkamp, the junior United States Senator from the state of North Dakota who stunned the political world in 2012 by winning the Peace Garden State against all odds and expectations.  Heitkamp shows up on this blog constantly, partially because electoral surprises stagger me, partially because I like her personally, but mostly because she's an extremely rare breed in U.S. politics in the last five years: a red-state Blue Dog Democrat who won a major statewide election recently.  Thanks to the 2010 and 2014 Midterms, Heitkamp is one of only five Democratic senators who represent a state in the United States Senate that Mitt Romney won (the others are Claire McCaskill, Joe Donnelly, Jon Tester, and Joe Manchin).  Of the five, Heitkamp was the only person who was coming off of a political loss when she ran and won her seat, putting her in an even more interesting (and admittedly precarious) situation than the others.

All of this is to say that it is surprising that Heitkamp, whose relatively small profile on the national stage (most people across the country haven't heard of her), is about to make a major decision that could decide the fates of some major Democrats in the country like Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  This is because, with the retirement of Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R) in North Dakota, Heitkamp has arguably the best chance of her career to take an office she has coveted for decades: governor.  Dalrymple announced yesterday that he will retire rather than running for another term, leaving open the North Dakota statehouse for the first time in 16 years.  That election, in 2000, was the moment where Heitkamp's national star faded.  At the time she was the sitting Attorney General, just barely into her 40's, and up until October she was winning the election.  Then, after an admission that she had breast cancer, her lead to CEO John Hoeven (who now serves with her in the U.S. Senate) vanished, and she ended up losing the election by 10-points.  It was a pretty heartbreaking loss for Democrats that year, and one that still stings when you bring it up in certain corners of the Midwest.  Heitkamp clearly still covets the job, and has expressed her frustration more than once about the Senate and the pace at which it works (most people who served as both governor and senator tend to prefer the more central-command position of governor).

So why is it that I point out Clinton, Schumer, and Ginsburg up-top?  It's because Heitkamp's decision will almost certainly mean the Democrats are sacrificing her Senate seat.  Thanks to a recent law in the state, Heitkamp will not be able to appoint her successor, who will instead be decided in a special election in April.  Were she to run for the governor's mansion and win, there's no other Democrat in the state that remotely has the capability to run for the seat and win-she's it.  Her seat is particularly important because without it, the Democrats would have to pick up five Senate seats in 2016 to win back the Senate majority, and six if the Democrats don't have the White House.  That's rough math, and her leaving the position of senator would probably ensure Mitch McConnell stays in the majority leader position.  With that, he would be able to not only relegate Chuck Schumer's first-term as leader into the minority, but also be able to stop much of a hypothetical President Clinton's agenda, and most critically, any Supreme Court nominee.  Conversely, Heitkamp would stand in the way of a potential President Jeb Bush's choice to replace an aging liberal justice like Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Stephen Breyer with an Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas, thus giving the Supreme Court to the GOP for another few decades and putting at risk everything from gay marriage to abortion rights to the Voting Rights Act.

That might seem hyperbolic, but it's reality.  We live in an increasingly partisan environment, and it's not hard to see a very near day when a non-controversial Supreme Court nomination is decided entirely along party lines (it is almost there-look at Elena Kagan, a pretty innocuous nominee replacing a very liberal justice that very few Republicans crossed over on).  And it's worth noting that with the blue/red dynamic of states being weirdly 50/50 (despite having a clear advantage in the electoral college, thanks to a number of small GOP states like Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho, the Republicans have an inherent, gerrymandered by history advantage in the Senate), seats like Heitkamp's become increasingly vital.  On DailyKOS this morning, I read the comments section who were saying, "who cares if she leaves the Senate-she's a DINO anyway?" but DINO's like Heitkamp are who decide the majority.  If the Republicans didn't have Mark Kirk, Kelly Ayotte, Dean Heller, and Ron Johnson, four Obama-state Republicans, they wouldn't have the majority.  The ability of a party to find the likes of a Heidi Heitkamp to cross over is becoming more and more pivotal, which is why you can bet everyone from Hillary Clinton to Harry Reid will be calling her in the next 24 hours begging her to stay in the Senate, even while the North Dakota Democratic Party and Steve Bullock over at the DGA will be wooing her into the governor's race to improve Democrats paltry numbers there.

As for how she'll decide, I haven't the foggiest.  I imagine all things being equal she'd prefer to be governor, but pragmatism is important in these situations, because in reality she can't really run for both seats.  Logistically of course she can, and even if she were to run and lose the governor's race in 2016, if she turned around and ran for reelection in 2018 no one at the DSCC or in the state party would bat an eye and she'd have two cleared primaries, but she's already in an uphill race here, and having the Senate seat look like second place in 2018 would be political suicide.  I can find absolutely no example of someone running as a sitting senator for governor, losing, and then winning reelection to the Senate, much less someone who was in the minority party in their state.  It's a key reason I feel that Joe Manchin and Claire McCaskill both turned down similar situations earlier this year in their states.  It's hard to tell which is going to be the easier race for Sen. Heitkamp-if Hillary Clinton is elected in 2016, it's likely that history will doom her (the opposite party of the White House usually does better in the Midterms), but running for governor in a state that the Republicans are certain to win in the race for the White House is also a rough decision as well.  It's also worth noting that governor/senator is as far as she gets on a national level.  Though she might, theoretically, be a Secretary of Agriculture or something in a future Democratic administration she's too conservative on environmental issues and gun control to ever be on a national ticket even if her biography and retail politicking skills would normally put her in contention.  All-in-all, I suspect that though she might have a slightly better time running for governor, reality will settle in that she has a better shot of national support in 2018 when her seat will decide control of the majority, and I'd probably advise her to skip the governor's race and go full-throttle for reelection, when she'll have the likes of Donnelly/McCaskill/Tester/Manchin in her corner to help shape a national agenda.  But as far as predictions-it's wait and see right now.  But trust that even though it's a tiny state, a lot of people in Washington have their eyes focused on Bismarck right now.

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