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Commentary: Heitkamp's control over her carefully cultivated "North Dakota nice" persona is slipping

How does a Democrat like Heidi Heitkamp get elected in a state like North Dakota where no other Democrat has won on the statewide ballot in a decade?

She's a master at playing the "North Dakota nice."

Except, she's not really that nice. At least, not any nicer than most of the conniving, grasping politicians who run for elected office.

While Heitkamp's brother launches personal attacks at her critics (including this one) from his radio show, while her various campaign surrogates and political allies all but accuse Republicans of wanting to push elderly people down stairwells, the senator herself serenely floats above it all.

It's a testament to Heitkamp's skills as a politician, one of the most deft our state has ever seen, that she gets away with this crap.

It's not easy to throw mud without getting any on yourself.

In the closing weeks of the 2012 election cycle those working to get Heitkamp branded her opponent Rick Berg as a slumlord who attacks women.

Shortly after taking office in 2013 Heitkamp visited a school in western North Dakota and spoke to the children there about the importance of civility in politics.

If hypocrisy were oil painting, Heitkamp would be Rembrandt.

Recently, though, Heitkamp's made some uncharacteristic mistakes.

Consider her campaign's reaction to the news that her opponent, Congressman Kevin Cramer, had been appointed to a conference committee to negotiate a farm bill on behalf of the House of Representatives. Heitkamp, at the time not yet appointed to the Senate side of the committee, had her spokesman describe the situation as "politics at its worse."

Of course, when Heitkamp's own appointment came through, she suddenly postured herself as a paragon of bipartisanship. "Congress can't waste any time or get bogged down with divisive and partisan provisions," she said in a press release announcing the news.

Cramer, for his part, congratulated Heitkamp on the appointment.

The situation around the long-delayed appointment of Drew Wrigley as North Dakota's U.S. Attorney has also turned into a fumble by Heitkamp.

Wrigley, who held the job during the George W. Bush administration, has been widely acknowledged as Trump's likely nominee.

Yet the announcement has been delayed.

The word in political circles is Heitkamp was holding things up, perhaps motivated by a desire for partisan retribution after the appointment of former U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon, a Heitkamp ally, was held up during the Obama years.

We may have confirmation of the rumors.

Heitkamp has tried to deny her involvement. "When did I get that powerful?" she told my colleague, reporter John Hageman, when asked about it. Her office later backtracked, issuing a subsequent release confirming Heitkamp's opposition to Wrigley."I don't see a need for a change," she said.

Heitkamp doesn't typically make mistakes like that. When she does, though, it's revealing. A rare glimpse behind the curtain where we can see a ruthlessness and petty vindictiveness which is at odds with the gosh-yeah-you-betcha Heitkamp who shows up in diners and parades during election years.

Rob Port, founder of, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Follow him on Twitter at @RobPort