Heidi Heitkamp still remembers the first time she led the Senate in the Pledge of Allegiance after her surprising win in 2012. How hard it was to get the words out.
“I can’t get through it because I’m too emotional,” she recalls to dozens of gangly teenagers graduating from the American Legion’s Boys State program. “How could a middle-aged, kind of a chubby woman, be standing in the United States Senate?”
The 61-year-old Heitkamp survived a brutal bout with cancer amid a failed 2000 campaign for governor, then ran for the Senate 12 years later in a Republican-dominated state. And now she is staring down an exceedingly difficult reelection campaign in a state where President Donald Trump is beloved.
Though every Democrat from the oil patch in Williston to bustling Fargo is banking on Heitkamp running, winning and reviving the party in this state, the plain-spoken, stridently moderate Democratic senator is months away from making it official. That’s in part because she’d far rather govern than spend 15 months talking about her campaign. But she says she’s also undecided.
“There’s days I have doubts … I mean this is a hard life. Actually, the happiest I am is on days like today,” she says on a sparkling June day as she crisscrosses the state’s southeastern corner. “You know, I haven’t made up my mind.”
A few minutes later, she’s convincing herself she must run again: Would her replacement care as much as she does about Native American children or changing the minds of Democrats who criticize fossil fuels?
“I think: What value do I add in the Senate? Why am I important to the institution? Not just to North Dakota,” she says. “I’m a very effective advocate for North Dakota. That’s easy.”
There is much riding on Heitkamp’s political prospects, which are central to Senate Democrats’ plans to ultimately retake the chamber by 2020 — few think any other Democrat could hold the seat. Heitkamp is a rare politician, the last Senate Democrat left that opposed universal gun background checks and who peppers her speech with mild expletives in her prototypical Plains State accent. Despite 12 years between her gubernatorial run and her Senate race, she still maintained near-universal name ID in the state.
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