GRAND FORKS - When voters think of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who else do they think of?
Republican operatives hope North Dakotans think of red America's liberal bogey monsters-Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, a group tasked with boosting the GOP's upper-chamber majority, has sent a parade of press releases for months seeking to tie Heitkamp to her party's leaders, who are believed to be hugely unpopular in right-leaning states.
"Despite claiming to represent North Dakotans, Heidi Heitkamp has gone out of her way to back the liberal policies of Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi," one such email reads. "Heitkamp has repeatedly failed to support the policies North Dakota voters want, and folks will be holding her accountable come November."
Perhaps the most obvious example is HighFiveHeidi.com, a website launched earlier this month that critically reviews votes on a range of issues. At the top are stylized images of Heitkamp and Schumer, midhigh five, lampooning a moment both senators shared during an abortion vote in late January. Critics of Heitkamp have called it a crassly timed, celebratory "high five"-a claim rated false by PolitiFact and denied by both senators' aides, who said they were simply greeting one another with outstretched hands.
Heitkamp called the website's joke "annoying at best" and part of a growing coarsening of political discourse. She argued that her relationship with Schumer has helped boost updated financial regulations and helped her as she worked to lift the oil export ban.
"I don't know Nancy Pelosi. I've probably met her once," Heitkamp said. "(And) there's things that Chuck Schumer and I will never agree on. ... But the ability to knock on the door and say, 'here's a priority for the state of North Dakota that I need, and I need you to help me get there'-I don't know how that hurts anyone in the state of North Dakota."
Mike Jacobs, former Herald publisher and a longtime observer of North Dakota politics, said the NRSC's claims-suggesting Heitkamp is more of Washington than of North Dakota-are fairly typical electoral politics, with a decidedly mixed rate of success. Those same charges were levied against former Democratic Sens. Quentin Burdick, Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan, he said, as well as former Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy.
And the same strategy has been deployed against Republicans, too. Jacobs recalls Burdick using it against a locally born opponent in a 1980s Senate race who happened to own space for horses in Virginia.
There's data to help sketch the issue out further. The political website FiveThirtyEight, in a long-running project, is tracking how often members of Congress vote for Donald Trump's agenda, counting votes for various nominees and legislation. By their count, Heitkamp votes for Trump's position about 55.2 percent of the time, which makes her the third most Trump-friendly Democrat in the Senate. Schumer, D-N.Y., votes for Trump's position about 24 percent of the time-and the most anti-Trump Republican by the website's measure, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., votes for Trump's agenda 75 percent of the time.
And she's also far from Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., who will challenge her for her seat this November. The congressman's slate of votes are different because he sits in a different chamber, but he votes with Trump's position 98.5 percent of the time, the website states.
The race, widely predicted to be a high-priced affair, will continue to be so for the near future. Americans For Prosperity, backed by the conservative donor Koch brothers, has recently backed an attack ad on Heitkamp to the tune of $450,000, the D.C.-area newspaper The Hill reports. The advertisement, which criticizes Heitkamp's donors and record, is the apparent result of a separately reported casting-call ad for a woman with Heitkamp's appearance.
"The plain truth of the matter was Burdick, Conrad, Dorgan, Pomeroy, Heitkamp-every one of them was born in North Dakota. It's kind of hard to say they're not one of us," Jacobs said. "(Heitkamp) might not be one of 'us' if we're North Dakota Republicans, but she's also not one of 'us' if we're Capitol Hill Democrats."