MCFEELY: Is Trump crazy, or crazy like a fox with Heitkamp?
MANDAN, N.D. — Imagine being Rep. Kevin Cramer. You've duct-taped yourself to Donald Trump's behind for the past two years, being one of the first Republicans to jump on the Trump Train when everybody else was saying it was going to be Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz or anybody else taking on Hillary Clinton. Let's put it this way: Cramer's ChapStick bill has risen significantly since Trump announced he was running for president.
And then when Trump triumphantly returns to North Dakota as president to stir up support for tax cuts in front of a hand-picked Republican crowd that hasn't fawned and genuflected this much since Ronald Reagan was in office, what does The Donald do? He invites Cramer's archrival, Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, to fly from Washington, D.C., to Bismarck-Mandan on Air Force One and has her on stage during his speech.
The president wasn't done yet. "Good woman," Trump said at one point, handing Heitkamp a ready-made campaign ad in deeply Republican North Dakota if she chooses to run for re-election next year. Heitkamp is viewed as one of the most vulnerable Democratic Senators running in 2018 and needs all the help she can get.
Cramer, a potential opponent for Heitkamp, had to be mumbling. As did declared candidate Tom Campbell, who also has tried to Velcro himself to Trump's popularity in the state. One of the North Dakota GOP establishment's prized recruits to run against Heitkamp, State Board of Higher Education member Kathleen Neset, was one of the first to greet Trump when he stepped off his plane — but she didn't get the star treatment and nobody knows who she is anyway.
It was all just so ... odd. Especially since Republicans don't actually have a tax bill. Trump spoke only in broad generalities about cutting taxes, Republican boilerplate stuff. There are no details on which the president can hold Heitkamp's feet to the fire, and she hasn't committed to anything.
"Republicans baffled by Trump's appearance w/ Heitkamp today," tweeted RealClearPolitics writer Caitlin Huey-Burns. "Especially since there is no bill. She gets benefits w/out giving up anything."
Is Trump crazy to give Heitkamp a boost, particularly on the same day he rolled Republican congressional leadership by siding with despised coastal liberals Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer in raising the debt ceiling?
Hopeful Republicans say no. They say Trump invited Heitkamp to put pressure on her to support his tax cuts, knowing her margin for re-election is thin as tissue paper. Heitkamp beat Republican Rick Berg by fewer than 3,000 votes in 2012.
The thinking is that Trump painted Heitkamp into a corner by inviting her (she couldn't say no, at the risk of alienating his supporters) and if she doesn't vote for a tax-cut bill he supports — whatever it turns out to be — the president can return in the heat of the 2018 election and thrash her. That could be enough to swing the election against her.
There is one hole in that theory, and it's not small: Trump could do that regardless of whether he invited Heitkamp to North Dakota this time or not. There are 10 Democratic Senators up for re-election in states won by Trump. The president can expect to be busy making stump speeches for Republican Senate candidates in 2018, and he'll be sure to carpet-bomb Democrats who voted against him.
It is almost always near impossible to figure out Trump's strategy, if there even is one. His treatment of Heitkamp might come down to something as simple and strange as this: Maybe he just likes her and wants her approval. Don't laugh. This president is a different cat and an avowed non-politician. Nobody can deny he marches to a different drumbeat.
If that's the case, it is 1) hilarious and 2) a particularly big win for Heitkamp. Think about it. She didn't even have to spend any money on duct tape and ChapStick to cozy up to Trump.