Vice President Mike Pence stopped in Fargo on Tuesday to tout the Republican tax overhaul and give Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., a boost in his campaign to unseat Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. The incumbent senator, considered to be among the nation's most vulnerable Democrats in this year's election, had won President Donald Trump's praise in a 2017 visit to Mandan as a "good woman."
But the days of praise from the Trump administration appear to be over.
"Heidi Heitkamp hasn't put North Dakota first," Pence told a crowd at a hotel ballroom on the western edge of Fargo. He criticized her votes on abortion, the Affordable Care Act, the Republican tax plan and methane flaring. "I don't know about the rest of you, but I think the people of North Dakota deserve better."
Julia Krieger, a spokesperson for Heitkamp's campaign, fired back in an emailed statement, highlighting Heitkamp's vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. She called other votes efforts to "protect" North Dakotans' health care or stands "against efforts to waste valuable energy resources."
"It wasn't too long ago that Vice President Pence came to North Dakota and praised Heidi as a 'strong leader,' noting her 'great relationship' with him and President Trump," Krieger said, referring to Pence's last visit in October, during which he toured Minot Air Force Base. "She'll keep working with Republicans, Democrats, and with the White House-no matter who is in office-to get real results for North Dakota."
The shot at Heitkamp came deep into a speech touting the Trump administration's accomplishments before the friendly crowd. Pence argued that "America is back" after a string of legislative and regulatory victories, from the tax bill to funding for the military and security along the Mexican border in a $1.3 trillion spending bill last week. Pence touted bigger paychecks for average Americans, "progress" on the North American Free Trade Agreement and deregulation-specifically the rollback of the Waters of the U.S. rule.
Missing from Pence's speech was Trump's famous promise that Mexico will pay for the southern border wall, as well as the fact that, hours before the president signed Friday's spending bill, he threatened a veto. He had expressed displeasure both at the unresolved question of young undocumented immigrants' permission to remain in the U.S. and a lack of funding for a border wall.
Pence also did not mention the reported controversies that have beset the White House in recent weeks, from cabinet and staff turnover to the growing attention to Trump's alleged affair with adult film actress Stormy Daniels. However, those concerns were largely brushed aside by attendees of the event, who saw much of the media buzz about the Trump administration's crisis as little more than "fake news," decade-old scandal and politics.
"The Russia investigation, I think it's a crime looking for a criminal," Rob Thiel of Detroit Lakes, Minn., said as he was waiting in line to enter the event. "If they had some evidence to support it, why haven't we heard about any of that evidence up until this point? I think it's a diversion tactic to take attention away from the good that he's doing."
The vice president made oblique reference to the news media when he urged guests at his address to carry his message to their co-workers and neighbors. He said that all the television, cable networks, websites and emails don't matter a "hill of beans" compared to a trusted friend's thoughts on politics.
"Tell them what they're not hearing on most of their cable television stations," he said. "Tell them we're putting Washington back to work for them, not the other way around."
Pence took the stage at the Delta Hotels by Marriott shortly after a panel discussion featuring North Dakota business and political leaders, including Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. And that same day, he attended a closed campaign event for Cramer-though Cramer himself was absent from public events that day following the death of his 35-year-old son, Isaac, who died at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., last week.
"I know I speak for people all over this great state when I say that Kevin and Kris and his entire family are in our prayers," Pence said. "The Good Book tells us that we mourn with those who mourn. We grieve with those who grieve."
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum introduced Pence on the ballroom stage and was present at Cramer's closed campaign event. He said the vice president offered a highly similar message behind closed doors, even including "word-for-word" similar criticism of Heitkamp. He also praised the responsiveness of the administration to governors around the country.
"In our state, whether it's energy, agriculture or health care, what gets decided in Washington, D.C., affects every citizen in our state," he said. "We have to be assertive in working with our partners in Washington, D.C., to make sure that the policies made there work for people in North Dakota."