Ag Policy Blog

Eyes on Heitkamp for Ag Secretary, But N.D. Democrats Think Otherwise

Jerry Hagstrom
By  Jerry Hagstrom , DTN Political Correspondent
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WASHINGTON (DTN) -- A pair of top North Dakota Democrats said over the weekend that it's unlikely Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., would accept the position of Agriculture secretary if President-elect Donald Trump offers it to her, despite a Politico report Saturday that Heitkamp is Trump's first choice for the job.

Former North Dakota Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan told The Hagstrom Report/DTN on Sunday that Heitkamp will run for re-election in 2018 and predicted that she will win.

"Heidi has a 70% approval in North Dakota. She's not going anywhere. She'll run for re-election in 2018, and she will win," Dorgan said in an email.

Dorgan noted that he won his first race for the U.S. House in 1980 during the landslide that elected former California Gov. Ronald Reagan as the Republican president.

"North Dakotans are big ticket splitters," Dorgan said. "The questions in our state are: 'Do they know you?', 'Do they like you?' and 'Do they trust you?'"

"North Dakotans know, like and trust Heidi. She has carved out her own identity," Dorgan said.

Dorgan noted that he, former Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad and former Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy "spent a combined 74 years winning in a 'red state.' In North Dakota, politics is more personal than party."

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Dorgan added, "Heidi will run for re-election and win in 2018. People like her!"

Dorgan sent the statement when asked to comment on a New York Times article Sunday about a dinner that Heitkamp hosted at her home last Monday for other Democratic senators running for re-election in 2018.

Conrad, whom Heitkamp succeeded when he declined to run in 2012, told The Hagstrom Report he was at that dinner and that he also thinks she will stay in the Senate.

"Heitkamp would be great [as Agriculture secretary], but I assume she prefers representing North Dakota, which she is exceptional at doing," Conrad said. "If she runs, she wins because people like her and trust her. She is a leader, which no doubt is what attracted Trump's team."

In a statement to The Hagstrom Report/DTN on Sunday, Heitkamp avoided stating her plans, but repeated part of the statement she made before she traveled to New York earlier this month to meet with Trump.

"Every single day, my work is motivated first and foremost by how I can be most helpful to the people of North Dakota," Heitkamp said. "They are my driving force and have been throughout my career in public service. Whatever job I do, I hope to work with the president-elect and all of my colleagues in Congress on both sides of the aisle to best support my state."

Heitkamp was not quoted in the Times article about the dinner, but the article said that, over Chinese food, the senators -- including Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Jon Tester of Montana -- agreed that the party needs to emphasize economic issues rather than cultural issues such as gay rights and gun control in order to win the rural vote that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton lost so badly.

"Why did the working people, who have always been our base, turn away?" Manchin told the Times in a statement that reflected the tone of the conversation.

There were also other signals that Heitkamp might not accept a Trump appointment.

A prominent former Democratic USDA official told The Hagstrom Report/DTN over the weekend, "Heitkamp would be a good choice at USDA, although Democrats will not be happy losing a seat for two years."

A prominent agribusiness official indicated that the agriculture community doesn't want to lose a senator who has good relations with agriculture.

"So Heitkamp takes Ag, and the Senate seat goes to an R. Makes sense as to why Trump wants her. Hope she says no!" the executive said in an email.

After her trip to New York, Heitkamp thanked Trump for meeting with her, but said the conversation focused on the needs of North Dakota rather than a job for her.

Last week, she signaled that there was a limit to her enthusiasm for Trump's appointees. When the Trump transition team announced that the president-elect had picked Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a critic of the Renewable Fuel Standard, to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Heitkamp said, "I'm still learning about him, but I have serious concerns about his record of opposing the Renewable Fuel Standard, which is critical for farmers and jobs across North Dakota. If we're going to have an EPA administrator who understands rural America, that means they also have to understand the needs of farmers and want to support those farmers. Additionally, I share concerns about regulatory overreach, but also want to make sure we have clean air and water."

Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., is considered the most likely candidate to run against Heitkamp or for an open seat if she should leave for a Trump Cabinet position. But North Dakota sources have told The Hagstrom Report that he may face competition within the Republican Party for the nomination.

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