FARGO – Depending on whether she’s at home or away on the campaign trail, North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp may have to strike two different tones.
The distinction wouldn’t be necessarily what the Senate hopeful says – but how she says it.
Political analysts say that’s not unusual for Democratic candidates seeking to sway the conservative voting bloc in a die-hard red state, like North Dakota.
Here in the state, Heitkamp has presented herself as a moderate, independent voice – willing to buck the Democratic Party in order to do what she believes is best for her state, such as by disagreeing with national party leaders in her support of the Keystone XL pipeline.
But outside of North Dakota, a different image of Heitkamp may emerge: A more outspoken voice that doesn’t shy away from standing up for controversial social policies and, inherently, aligns herself with the national Democratic Party establishment.
A recent trip Heitkamp took with prominent Senate Democrats showcases this contrast – foreshadowing the challenges Heitkamp will likely face in her campaign and the different audiences she’ll have to tailor her message for.
Heitkamp disputes the contrast exists, maintaining she’s been “very consistent” on the issues.
However, the apparent contradiction isn’t lost on political analysts like Jim Danielson, a retired political science professor at Minnesota State University Moorhead.
“It has to do with the kinds of issues she wants to put front and center at the state level versus nationally,” Danielson said, adding that the Heitkamp’s apparent dual image isn’t without precedent.
It’s the same line Democratic veterans Kent Conrad, Byron Dorgan and Earl Pomeroy had to toe when they represented North Dakota together in Congress for nearly 20 years, he said.
“They took positions on national issues that probably weren’t broadly approved of in the state of North Dakota,” Danielson said, “but their main focus in visits back home were issues that had to with things supported in the North Dakota culture. That’s not atypical for political appearances.”
Mark Jendrysik, political science professor at the University of North Dakota, said Heitkamp’s campaign is “clearly trying to position her as a more conservative Democrat” but a more-Democratic message out of the state can be expected, since she’s also trying to court fundraising dollars from the party base.
“Republicans do it, too,” Jendrysik said. “It’s not an inconsistency so much as when you fund-raise you have to tell the audience where you stand.”
The recent example was this past month through Heitkamp’s position on a controversial birth control mandate tied to health care reform.
While she’s been relatively quiet on the debate in North Dakota, Heitkamp joined a coalition of high-profile Senate Democrats for fundraisers last week on the West Coast – partially on the premise of being a victory lap for the party.
Heitkamp spent a day each in Colorado, Washington state and California with a coalition of female candidates and sitting senators “to build support for the historic number of women running for the Senate this year.”
In North Dakota, Heitkamp hasn’t made a campaign issue out of that national debate, but she’s answered questions from media and potential voters when asked.
The mandate, as part of the health care reform package two years ago, requires insurance companies to cover preventive health services for women, including birth control. Heitkamp told The Forum she supports the mandate but she also agrees that only religious groups should be exempt.
Out of state though, Heitkamp has taken a more active stance on the issue as part of this coalition of Democratic women running for the U.S. Senate.
Along with the recent out-of-state tour, Heitkamp has appeared in a DSCC web ad and a Facebook ad blitz, which asks users to sign a petition on Heitkamp’s campaign website and asks them to “stand with Heidi Heitkamp in protecting women’s rights. Tell Congress to stop their assault on women’s health.”
Heitkamp said she hasn’t been inconsistent in her message.
“It wasn’t like we tried to hide the (DSCC) ad,” Heitkamp said, adding that she plans to play the ad for state Democrats at their nominating convention this weekend. “We’ve responded when anyone has asked about the contraception issue. … We’re not running away from it in the state.”
Heitkamp’s campaign spokesman Brandon Lorenz said the recent West Coast trip was unrelated to the national birth control debate, because “the trip was actually planned well in advance before that became a significant issue in the news.”
Heitkamp also said the contraception issue was barely mentioned during the trip. Each candidate had a chance to discuss issues important to her state, and Heitkamp said she answered “a lot of questions about fracking,” in reference to North Dakota’s Oil Patch.
The tour included participation from all 11 women seeking U.S. Senate seats this year, who – besides Heitkamp – are: Maria Cantwell of Washington, Dianne Feinstein of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, as well as Democratic challengers Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Shelley Berkley of Nevada and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii.
That coalition of women presents a broad mix of Democratic views.
Some, like Heitkamp, have forged a more middle-of-the-road path in politics, aiming to attract the center base of voters.
Others represent the far-left of the Democratic spectrum. Gillibrand and Feinstein – along with Boxer – rank as among the most liberal U.S. senators in office, according to a recent analysis of voting records by the National Journal. Baldwin, a sitting congresswoman, also ranks as among the most liberal in the U.S. House.
Heitkamp’s campaign downplayed the liberal-leaning nature of the group, emphasizing the tour’s purpose to promote Democratic women seeking Senate seats this year. Some, like Heitkamp, would be the first female senators from their states, if elected.
“There were a lot of candidates and senators who were a part of the trip,” Lorenz said. “Heidi agrees with some and disagrees with others. Her focus is on doing what’s right for North Dakota.”
When asked how her recent out-of-state fundraising trip played in to that message, Lorenz responded, “All of the candidates raise money in state and out of state; it’s part of the campaign.”
But, Lorenz noted, Heitkamp has spent more time campaigning in North Dakota than she has elsewhere.
“Heidi was in Fargo last week talking to voters there,” he added. “She will certainly continue to travel around the state as she campaigns.”
In the end, it all comes back to the target audience of the day.
Jendrysik said Heitkamp doesn’t have any reason to be vocal in North Dakota about the birth control mandate because “the people who are wound up about this are probably not going to vote for her anyway.” In contrast, national party donors want to know she’ll stand with the party, he said.
Meanwhile, though, national Republicans said Heitkamp’s Democratic trip is a sign of her hidden allegiance to President Obama and the unpopular health care reform legislation she lobbied for two years ago.
“The facts speak for themselves – Heidi Heitkamp supports Obamacare, supports the president’s attack on our personal freedoms and she went on a fundraising tour with some of Congress’ most liberal members in order to help keep Harry Reid majority leader of the Senate,” said Lance Trover, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “The voters of North Dakota should take note that while she will run a campaign claiming to be a moderate, if she were to get to Washington she would simply be another solid vote for President Obama and his far left agenda.”
Heitkamp’s likely opponent in the Senate race, Republican Rep. Rick Berg, echoed similar sentiments.
“Instead of pretending North Dakotans won’t notice this sleight of hand, Heidi should come home and come clean about her praise for President Obama and Obamacare, which 70 percent of North Dakotans did not support,” Berg spokesman Chris Van Guilder said.