McFeely: Heitkamp says there is 'great irony' the way some in N.D. voted

Former U.S. Senator says her work on behalf of certain groups didn't matter in election loss
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp concedes the North Dakota senate race, at an election night event in Fargo, N.D., Nov. 6, 2018. (Hilary Swift/Copyright 2018 The New York Times)
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp concedes the North Dakota senate race, at an election night event in Fargo, N.D., Nov. 6, 2018. (Hilary Swift/Copyright 2018 The New York Times)Hilary Swift/Copyright 2018 The New York Times

There is a wistfulness in Heidi Heitkamp's voice when she talks about the 2018 U.S. Senate race she lost to Kevin Cramer. It is not bitterness, she is not re-litigating the election in which she lost her seat to then-Rep. Cramer by 11 points, she is not doing the coulda-shoulda-woulda. But when Heitkamp brings up how certain constituencies voted against her, despite the work she'd done on their behalf in Washington, D.C., there seems to be some sense of abandonment.

Or maybe it's bafflement.

"They rolled the dice that we're going to bet only on politics, and the demographics of politics are not good for the coal industry," Heitkamp said, referring to one area of North Dakota that chose Cramer over her.

"That's the great irony. The single most important thing that happened for the oil industry in the last 20 years in Congress was the opening of oil exports, which I led and wouldn't have happened if I wouldn't have done it," she said, pointing out another.

Either way, she lost and now has begun the next stage of her life. Heitkamp is back home living in Mandan, but isn't done talking about policies and issues she believes are important to North Dakota and the nation. She will be a regular contributor on CNBC and has been named a fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School Institute of Politics, where she'll co-teach a class with President Donald Trump's former economic adviser Gary Cohn.

(Here is Part 1 of the Heitkamp interview podcast.)

Heitkamp did a 45-minute interview with The Forum last week, which can be heard in its entirety on the "McFeely Mess" podcast at www.inforum.com. Some of the highlights of her remarks were printed in Friday's newspaper. But space considerations in print meant much interesting material was left out. Here is Part 2 of some highlights of Heitkamp's remarks, edited for the sake of brevity and clarity.

On being a fellow at Harvard: "We named our series of discussions 'The Real State of the Union' because one of the frustrations of anybody coming at things from a common-sense perspective or a business perspective is the day-trading that goes on in Washington. How things like a border wall can suck the oxygen out of the room when we have emerging debt and deficits crisis, we have an emerging retirement crisis, we have an emerging health-care crisis. No one seems to be thinking of long-term solutions to those problems, so we thought this would be a great opportunity to throw out 15 minutes of 'this is how we see the world in these categories' and then just open it up for discussion. I'm not only really looking forward to engaging with students again, but to doing a deep-dive on these emerging issues for the country."

On the biggest crisis ahead for the U.S.: "I think the one coming the hardest is healthcare. If you look at debt and deficit you say, 'What's the one that's really going to drive this into crisis if we're not in crisis already?' It's demographic changes. Right now, people over 65 in the United States are about 15 percent of the population. In 2040, they are going to about 22 percent of the population and we're going to double or triple the number of people over the age of 85. Over the age of 85, typically those people will have depleted their family resources -- and we can talk about how people in this 50 year old category, many people are not preparing at all for retirement. But it's these demographic changes that are going to drive up health-care costs, that are going to drive up retirement insecurity and your daughter is going to be sitting there when we are in our 70s and 80s wondering how her and her colleagues are going to pay for our nursing home, how they are going to pay for our retirement, because we haven't saved enough."

On Trump's tax cut: "It was immoral what we did to the next generation. This is not growing the economy, it's not paying for itself. Maybe we get a little sugar rush. But what we basically did was put another 2 trillion dollars worth of debt on our kids without investing in anything tangible that's going to grow the economy and make a different long-term."

On her campaign strategy: "What I tell people is, I gambled. I made a simple gamble that people in North Dakota were not going to vote with somebody who is going to vote with the president 100 percent of the time. I honestly believed that was a good judgment on my part. It proved not to be true. He gambled the other way that people desperately wanted somebody who was going to vote with Donald Trump 100 percent of the time. ... That kind of was the theory of the case to begin with: Are you going to be an independent voice or are you going to be a partisan voice? Sen. Cramer promised to be a partisan voice, so no one should be surprised when he does nothing that is inconsistent with the position with the president of the United States. If you couldn't stand with the farmers in this tariff fight, then there's nothing that would shake my belief that he won't stand with the president over North Dakota's interests on anything."

On constituencies that voted against her: "I spent the better part of an hour talking with young workers, who had replaced an older generation of power-plant workers, about the challenges that were ahead for the coal industry. And, you know, you're up against the platitude of 'we're going to save your job.' There is no substance behind it. None. My point is, we're going to have to evolve if we want to save our jobs and that's what I'm trying to do. It's interesting, the work that was done for the oil industry, the work that was done for the coal industry, the work that I did in two Farm Bills and then the constituent services. And then at the end of the day, none of that mattered. None of it."

(Here is Part 1 of the Heitkamp interview podcast.)

On North Dakota's growing conservatism: "The difference between 2012 and 2018 in North Dakota's party identification was a 12-point swing to the Republican side. We knew that all along. We were hoping we could get enough crossover votes. (Former Senators) Kent (Conrad) and Byron (Dorgan) used to get about 20 percent. Republicans would say, 'Yeah, I'll vote for Kent or Byron.' Those numbers now, even nationally because we've become so tribal, are only 4 percent. So if only 4 percent of Republicans were willing to cross over and vote for me, we couldn't win. It was impossible to win. We lost by a bigger margin than I thought we'd lose by, but I think that was ... the Kavanaugh vote."

On voting against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh: "I will go to my grave believing it was the right vote. It's interesting because there was a public opinion poll after the confirmation. Only 21 percent of the people in this country believed he was telling the truth. I guess that's still OK to put people who lie in the White House and put people who lie on the Supreme Court. That's a whole brave new world for me. I've always believed two things in politics: You can't lie and that you can't be a hypocrite. I think we've kind of proven that's not true anymore in politics."

On Kavanaugh's fiery confirmation hearing: "It's interesting because people say, 'He was so young. Even if it's true it doesn't matter.' What matters to me is that if it was true, he should've owned it. He should've said, 'I don't remember.' But he was emphatic it didn't happen. At the end, this isn't a court of law. People kept saying it was about due process. This was a job application. This isn't a court of law. This is a job interview. If you had somebody who was sitting across from you in a job interview and you asked them ... you said it's been reported and we've done some background checks and this person said this and that about you, if that person came back you like Justice Kavanaugh came back at Amy Klobuchar, came back at the committee, came back at the ranking member ... you wouldn't give that person a second look. You'd say that's not a person I'm going to hire. But he's sitting on the Supreme Court. I will never regret that decision. And I knew when I made it, I told my colleagues, 'This is kind of the defining moment whether people in my state are going to decide which way they are going to go.'"

On why North Dakota has gotten so politically conservative: "First of all, I think we've had a changeover in population. We've lost more stakeholder farmers. Take a look at Fargo. I did very well in Fargo. In areas where there is a high concentration of professionals. The more important thing is, what's happened to the political identification. When I started off in 1984, do you know who my political base was? High school-educated, working-class people and seniors. And that's just flipped."

On President Trump demanding a border wall: "I think about this they way I would if I was sitting in a board room. OK, you give me one board directors who, if the CEO came in and said, 'I want $5 billion and I'm not going to tell you how I'm going to use it. I just want it because it makes me feel good.' Nobody would give him $5 billion."