BISMARCK — Dwindled Democratic-NPL power in North Dakota and the loss of the party’s only statewide incumbent present a natural question: What is the party's future in the Republican-controlled state?
Former U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp thinks there is one, if Democrats get the right breaks and offer a substantive vision.
“I think there’s truly an opportunity for the next generation of Democrats to, No. 1, drive a state narrative about what is the policy of the Democratic party here in the state,” she said.
Heitkamp, a Democrat, lost her bid for reelection in 2018 to Republican Congressman Kevin Cramer. She’s a former tax commissioner and attorney general from an era when Democrats controlled a raft of state offices.
Now the party is without any incumbent or an apparent governor candidate in 2020. Heitkamp, her party's nominee for that post in 2000, has said emphatically she’s not running.
“You have to admit that maybe it’s time for somebody else to offer themselves up,” she said. “And that’s not said with any bitterness or disdain. It's just, at some point, you start reimagining and doing something else with your life.”
She has started the “One Country” project with former Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., using contributions and her leftover Senate campaign funds. The project aims to connect rural issues, such as health care and manufacturing, to the national political narrative as Democrats seek to oust President Donald Trump in 2020.
"What are those things that unite the factory worker in Cincinnati and the cab driver in New York and the CNA at a nursing home in Wishek?" Heitkamp said.
She still lives in North Dakota and has been frequently traveling, recently to Maine and San Francisco, and will appear as an ABC News contributor during the Sept. 12 Democratic presidential debate in Houston.
She also appeared recently on "Real Time with Bill Maher," contributes to CNBC and has had a visiting fellowship at Harvard.
'A full effort'
After a career in public office, Heitkamp, 63, considers herself in an "emeritus role" or "sage adviser, maybe" to North Dakota Democrats.
"I like telling people I think all new ideas are good ideas, but sometimes you do need somebody who’s been around the block a few times to say that might not be the best idea," she said.
Democratic-NPL Chairwoman Kylie Oversen said Heitkamp is always welcome to be engaged in the party and has been a mentor to its up-and-comers.
Oversen expects North Dakota's 2020 races to be different than in 2018, when more than $32 million poured into the state's high-profile Senate race, seen as key for determining the Senate's majority power. And the party plans to offer a slate of candidates up and down the ballot.
"We intend to put forth a full effort, no matter the outcome, and we know it's important for voters to have those choices," said Oversen, her party's unsuccessful 2018 nominee for state tax commissioner.
Democrats will be "curiously watching" Republicans' primary process for challenges, especially in the governor's race, given Gov. Doug Burgum's past rubs with legislative leaders, Oversen said.
She also said Democrats plan to put forth "a strong candidate" against Burgum, who has made no official reelection announcement but is expected to run.
The Democratic party has been in talks with former elected officials and "some who are not maybe your typical candidate for an office like that," Oversen said.
But no announcements yet.
Heitkamp said the Democratic-NPL Party has run good candidates and campaigns but has been "drug down" by the national Democratic brand, aligned by critics with U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who is seen by some as a liberal firebrand. Heitkamp prefers a moderate Democratic message.
"I've been a Democrat my whole life. She's never even said she's a Democrat. She's a Democrat socialist, right?" Heitkamp said. "And she got 14,000 votes in Queens and beat a Democratic incumbent, so why does she get to be the voice of the Democratic party?"
Oversen said the national party has shaped how North Dakotans view Democratic-NPL candidates, but every state is more "nuanced" than the national message.
"We have a lot of members and supporters who work in the energy industry, for example, and that changes their perspective on how we handle climate change," she said. "We've got a lot of members who are or come from families of hunters, and that obviously changes how you look at gun safety measures."
'People want good government'
Former Republican Gov. Ed Schafer said that without a statewide incumbent, North Dakota's Democrats lack enough visibility to gain acceptance and momentum.
But he said the party could get its foot back in the door if voters find themselves unhappy with Republicans. Schafer's 1992 election amid Democratic state control and a poor economy is seen as the start of Republicans' rise to now total control of state offices.
"In spite of all the politics and commercials and everything that's out there, people want good government," Schafer said. "They just want good government, and if there's a sense that their government isn't doing good things for them, they'll swap it out."
He compares political power to a bell curve, swooping up to a point that eventually drops down.
"The pendulum swings, and it generally is because something has emerged that the electorate says, 'I want a change,' and you have to answer that," Schafer said.
But it can be hard to recruit statewide candidates, Oversen said, and some have seen repeated defeats. She pointed out that's not unique to Democrats — Cramer lost three U.S. House bids before his 2012 win.
Trump remains popular in North Dakota, where Heitkamp said barriers to Democrats are a bigger Republican base than before and an evaporated margin of crossover support for Democrats.
If Democrats can offer a message that resonates should Republicans suffer from controversial policies of the Trump administration, that could be their break, she said.
"I think you can exploit mistakes, but you also have to come not empty-handed," Heitkamp said.