MINOT, N.D. — “There are opportunities for Democrats to win back rural America, but they have to know how to win.”
That’s what former U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said in a recent interview, occasioned by her activism on behalf of the One Country Project.
That’s an advocacy and lobbying group co-founded by Heitkamp to help Democrats figure out the noncoastal, nonurban parts of our nation.
Heitkamp has won just one election in rural America in the last roughly 23 years, so obviously she knows what she’s doing.
So far Heitkamp’s advocacy on this front has been a lot of gum flapping about Democrats needing to be a bit more centrist on issues like health care.
Which is probably good advice, as far as it goes, but also the sort of generic insight the average cable news spectator could come up with without the millions of dollars in donations Heitkamp’s group has taken in.
Heitkamp, who has largely eschewed political altruism during her time in and pursuing elected office, isn’t doing this One Country stuff for the good of Democrats. This is about rehabilitating her own public persona ahead of a possible gubernatorial campaign against incumbent Doug Burgum next year.
But suppose for a moment that Heitkamp’s motivations aren’t selfish, and her intent is something more than pollyannaish, puddle-deep pablum.
What could Democrats do to start winning a state like North Dakota?
Aside from just not being Democrats any more? (I’m only partly joking.)
The conventional wisdom is that the left wing tilt of the national Democratic party hurts the more moderate Democrats trying to win elections in a state like North Dakota.
Thus if the national Democratic party moderates, that will help moderate Democrats win in rural areas.
But that assumes North Dakota’s Democrats are moderate.
In the 2016 election cycle, the state party selected their U.S. House candidate, Chase Iron Eyes. A multiple felon who, upon being defeated that election cycle, made haste down to the violent protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline where he got himself arrested on felony charges (a plea agreement ultimately reduced those charges down to a misdemeanor).
Most recently Iron Eyes has been involved in the efforts to ban South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem from reservation land.
Meanwhile a rising star in the North Dakota Democrat party, despite a paucity of actual policy achievements, is state Rep. Ruth Buffalo of Fargo. Who is also affiliated with the Red River Valley chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Buffalo, like Iron Eyes, was a supporter of the Dakota Access Protests.
Democrats also selected former lawmaker Kylie Oversen to be their party chair once again. During her time as the titular leader of the state party Oversen has presided over a sharp turn to the left.
Even as Heitkamp preaches moderation to Democrats nationally her own state party is becoming more extreme.
The former senator thinks change for her party can come from the top down. It seems to this observer the change needs to start at the grassroots level.
Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Plain Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.