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Heitkamp says she won't run for governor in 2016

U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp (ND) speaks with reporters after the weekly party caucus luncheons at the U.S. Capitol in Washington June 23, 2015. REUTERS1 / 2
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.2 / 2

BISMARCK – U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, widely considered Democrats’ best hope for reclaiming the governor’s office in North Dakota for the first time since 1992, said Wednesday she will not compete for the job in next year’s election.

Now in the third year of her first six-year term as a U.S. senator after defeating freshman U.S. Rep. Rick Berg for the office in 2012, Heitkamp said she “looked at this race very carefully” but will not run for governor and can best serve the state in Washington, D.C.

“It’s just not time. There’s too much going on here that really affects North Dakota,” she told Forum News Service in a phone interview after first announcing her decision on a KFGO radio show hosted by her brother, Joel Heitkamp.

Speculation was swirling about a possible Heidi Heitkamp candidacy even before Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple announced Aug. 24 that he wouldn’t seek a second full term next year, and Heitkamp said that announcement “really engaged me.” The 66-year-old Dalrymple said he and his wife want to spend more time with family.

Heitkamp said she still considers being governor the highest honor a public official can have, but she had to weigh that against issues she’s dealing with in Washington, such as new pollution standards for coal-fired power plants, the nation’s oil export ban and a new clean-water rule that would expand federal jurisdiction over some state waters.

“I think how difficult it would be to run a very competitive governor’s race and be as aggressive as I’ve been on all these issues that affect North Dakota’s economy and North Dakota’s people,” she said.

Republican state lawmakers gave Heitkamp another factor to consider when they passed a bill last spring requiring a special election to fill a U.S. Senate vacancy. Democrats saw the move as an attempt to discourage Heitkamp from running for governor because she wouldn’t be able to appoint her replacement if she won. Rep. Roscoe Streyle, R-Minot, said in January that a possible Heitkamp run “was on my mind” when he drafted the bill.

As someone who previously ran for North Dakota governor, a Heitkamp run and win would have put her in rare company. Only two of 15 failed North Dakota gubernatorial candidates have won on their comeback attempts, and no losing candidate has even tried since 1972, according to an analysis by Smart Politics, a non-partisan political news site authored by Dr. Eric Ostermeier at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

 With Heidi Heitkamp out, who will Dems run for governor?

The North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party hasn’t won a race for governor since George Sinner’s re-election in 1988 -- Democrats’ third-longest gubernatorial election drought in the nation behind South Dakota and Utah, according to Smart Politics.

Heitkamp came the closest in 2000, losing by more than 29,000 votes, or about 10 percentage points, to Bank of North Dakota president John Hoeven, now her colleague in the U.S. Senate.

Robert Haider, executive director of the Dem-NPL Party, said the party has been operating all along under the assumption that Heitkamp would stay in the Senate, “so this does not impact what we do moving forward.” He said the party will continue to recruit candidates, adding many potential candidates were waiting for Heitkamp’s decision.

“I think this morning’s announcement will result in seeing some movement,” he said.

Many Republicans viewed Heitkamp’s announcement Thursday that she was supporting the Iran nuclear deal as a sign she wasn’t running for governor. The state GOP released a statement Friday saying Heitkamp’s stance on the deal disregarded the views of most North Dakotans and “goes to show that she has lost touch with her constituents.” But Heitkamp said politics “was not a factor” in her position on the Iran deal.

Heitkamp, with her support for coal and oil and clashes with the Obama administration, is seen by many as a moderate Democrat in red-state North Dakota, which hasn't voted for a Democrat for president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

With Democrats needing to win five of seven seats in 2016 to regain a majority in the U.S. Senate, Heitkamp faced pressure from national Democrats to stay in Washington.

“I wouldn’t be telling you the truth if I said I didn’t get calls, but that wasn’t the reason” for not running for governor, she said, adding the calls that were most persuasive were from her fellow moderates. “They said, ‘We think we will be weaker as conservative or moderate Democrats if you leave.’ ”

Heitkamp was North Dakota’s attorney general from 1993 to 2000 and state tax commissioner from 1986 to 1992. She also served as counsel for the state Tax Commissioner’s Office from 1981 to 1986 and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from 1980 to 1981.

Heitkamp, who turns 60 in October and is a breast cancer survivor, said health wasn’t a factor in her decision not to run for governor, noting she’s already walking without a cane after her hip replacement surgery last month.

She said she hasn’t decided whether she’ll seek re-election to the Senate in 2018.

“One thing that I’ve learned in my life is that three years is a long time, that you need to really spend some time evaluating where you are,” she said.

Heitkamp is at least the third Senate Democrat this year to consider but not pursue a gubernatorial run. Similar announcements came from Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill in January and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin in April.