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McFeely: Heitkamp was 'realistic' about re-election chances, but 'surprised by margin'

North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp gives her farewell speech on the U.S. Senate floor Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018 in this screenshot of a livestream of the address.

Heidi Heitkamp is not exactly retreating from public life since losing her re-election bid to the U.S. Senate in November. The North Dakota Democrat has vowed to keep shining a light on issues she believes are important — health care, the national debt, Native American issues, what she calls "the retirement crisis," workforce training — and has lined up a couple of prestigious platforms to do so. She's signed on as a regular contributor on CNBC and will serve as a fellow at the Kennedy School's Institute of Politics at Harvard.

Heitkamp lost to Republican Kevin Cramer by 11 points, 55.5 percent to 44.5 percent, a result that was not unexpected given the strong rightward tilt of North Dakota and polls that consistently showed Cramer with a solid lead. Count Heitkamp among those unsurprised.

"You're always hopeful and you have to be optimistic, but you also have to be realistic," she said. "We believed that if we had an aggressive get-out-the-vote, which we did, and if we made our mark in the eastern part of the state, which we did ... we just lost too big out west. I was surprised by the margin in some places, especially in oil country."

In a wide-ranging interview this week, Heitkamp sometimes sounded like she felt a touch forsaken by voters she fought for in Washington, D.C. Oil, coal and agriculture were all areas Heitkamp championed, yet those constituencies all supported Cramer. She admitted her vote against the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh for the U.S. Supreme Court hurt, but said it didn't cost her the election. That, she said, was probably already a foregone conclusion given the changes in North Dakota's electorate.

"More conservative and evangelical," Heitkamp said.

(Here is part one of the Heitkamp interview podcast)


"I think the Kavanaugh vote had an impact on the race. The way I'd put it is, we were trying to persuade people we were independent and they saw the mess how it was handled in committee and they said, 'She's with the mob,'" Heitkamp said. "In fact, I had a guy tell me that in Devils Lake. He came up to me and said, 'I like you. I think you've done a great job. But you're part of the mob.'"

You can listen to the entire 45-minute interview on the "McFeely Mess" podcast posted at www. inforum.com. Here are highlights of Heitkamp's remarks, edited for the sake of brevity and clarity.

On her role at CNBC: "CNBC is another way to talk about the things I think are emerging issues. When I was in the Senate, staff would come in and say, 'We have to figure out what we're going to do with this bill, what are you thinking, what do you need to know? Blah, blah, blah.' I would just look at them and say that's fine, we'll figure out how we're going to vote on that piece of legislation. But look up. What's on the horizon? What's the train on the tracks 20 years from now that's going to affect my children? How do we make corrections today to prevent catastrophic results? The train on the track that's coming at us is retirement insecurity, it's demographic challenges given our health care system, it is debt and deficit, it's the future of work and how we are going to do workforce training. All of those issues fit so well with having an opportunity to talk about these issues on a platform like CNBC."

On regrets from the campaign: "The obvious thing on the campaign was the ad, the victims ad. As somebody who always made a very high priority in my public life to pursue justice for victims, to be someone who was the head of an organization ... that made that mistake was devastating to them. and it was devastating to me because that's not who I am."

On how her record in the Senate affected the race: "It didn't matter, any accomplishments you might've had, because you were the wrong brand. You were brand 'D' and he was brand 'R.' And when they went to buy the soap, they wanted brand 'R.'"

On her vote against Justice Kavanaugh: "In spite of how people feel about Justice Kavanaugh in North Dakota, I will never, ever regret that decision."

(Here is part two of the Heitkamp interview podcast)


On whether she thinks Cramer will be a good Senator for the state: "I hope so. He can legitimately say, 'I'm doing what I said I was going to do' when he votes with the president 100 percent of the time, when he prioritizes the issues he prioritizes. One thing I can say about Sen. Cramer: There was no masking of an agenda. He didn't go out and try to be something he's not. Give him credit. And he won with that agenda. He won with Trump's agenda."

On the partial government shutdown: "You know what I want as a citizen of this country? I want people to sit down and make decisions. You can play hardball. You can understand where your political base is. But this shutdown, no one wins shutdown politics. As far as I'm concerned, this is really stopping us from talking about health care. ... It's stopping us from talking about infrastructure. So time is opportunity and we're missing all of the opportunity to be doing all of these other things that need to be done. And that's what I'd be saying. Shame on President Trump for talking about a border wall when we should be talking about border security. And I think that my friends and colleagues on the Democratic side need to talk about how they are going to secure the border."