The U.S. Senate campaigns seem to be hitting their stride, but they're proceeding on different paths. Kevin Cramer and the Republicans have settled on a national campaign. This is unusual in North Dakota, even unprecedented. Heidi Heitkamp's campaign is more familiar; in some ways it seems almost retrograde, as if it were happening in an earlier time, before the political dislocations of the new era.
Cramer and Heitkamp are much alike personally, about the same age, both grew up in them same part of the state, though Cramer's hometown is a little bigger and a little closer to Fargo, the state's "metro." Both are longtime activists and officeholders. Cramer was state tourism director and served on the Public Service Commission before he was elected to the U.S. House; Heitkamp was tax commissioner and attorney general, lost a race for governor, and won the Senate seat she's defending. That was in 2012, in the same election that sent Cramer to Congress.
Nor are their records in Washington all that different. Cramer supports President Donald Trump consistently. While Heitkamp chooses her issues with care, she votes more often than not with Trump, especially on appointments. Inevitably, focus rests on the issues where she differs, and these reveal how conventional her campaign has become.
Heitkamp is campaigning as an old-time Democrat. This isn't surprising. Since her election, she's worked to give life to a coalition that once had Democrats in the governorship, most state office, all of the congressional seats and once in a while even one chamber or the other of the state legislature. This year's campaign has reached out to each element in the coalition.
Heitkamp hasn't paid for all of these touches, but they are clearly intended to help her nevertheless. Ads have touched on "country of origin labeling" of meat products, railroad safety, crime and the opioid epidemic.
Most reminiscent of yesterday's politics is Heitkamp own emphasis on health care.
Cramer consistently voted to "repeal and replace" Obamacare, otherwise known as the Affordable Care Act, while Heitkamp voted against repeal. Her own ads and some sponsored by other groups have pushed this issue, which has come to define her campaign. This, too, is familiar. Earl Pomeroy made Social Security a cornerstone of 10 consecutive campaigns for the U.S. House of Representatives, winning nine straight and losing the 10th in 2010, the "wave election" that brought Tea Party activists and their bitter opposition to entitlement programs to national attention and dragged the national consensus farther to the right. Kent Conrad used the same issue in 1986, a campaign that parallels this year's more closely than any other. The election came at mid-term in Ronald Reagan's second administration, and the future of government support programs was an issue.
Obamacare could prove to be an effective issue for Heitkamp because it helps define her as independent, choosing issues that she'll support, not voting consistently with President Trump. The issue also calls attention to one of Trump's legislative failures. He not only promised to repeal and replace the ACA, he promised really great health care. The bitterness about the ACA has largely dissipated; people have gotten used to it, especially provisions involving pre-existing conditions, and this is the part of the program that Heitkamp and her surrogates have stressed. The issue opens an opportunity not just for Heitkamp, but for other Democrats, as well, since the state's Republican attorney general, Wayne Stenehjem, has committed the state to a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law. It also could give her cover on another looming issue, the vote to confirm Trump's latest Supreme Court nominee, who could be a crucial vote on the future of the ACA.
The 1986 election was similar to this one in another way; late in the campaign, President Reagan came to support incumbent Sen. Mark Andrews. Cramer's campaign has taken this tactic to a new level.
President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have visited the state on Cramer's behalf. At last six members of the Trump Cabinet have been here, mostly on fact-finding trips. The effect is to tie Cramer even more closely to the president and his administration. Precedent doesn't favor this strategy. Andrews lost in 1986. There's also the chance that voters will wonder if these federal officials don't have better ways to spend their time.
The other issue that potentially favors Heitkamp is trade, of course. Historically, North Dakota Democrats have been skeptical about free trade, but it's turned out to be good for the state, and Heitkamp warned last week that Cramer's support of Trump's trade policies could endanger the economy.
I read the Herald and I know that some whose views appear here believe that Heitkamp's campaign is in freefall. I'm not saying Rob Port is wrong. I'm just saying some people think otherwise. Nor am I predicting that Heitkamp will win. I'm just saying, don't count her out until the votes are counted.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.