Commentary: The Heitkamp era has been terrible for North Dakota Democrats

Rob Port column sig
Rob Port

Where do North Dakota Democrats go from here?

As I write this the vote counts are still coming in. We’ll have time in the days ahead to dissect what happened in the legislative races and with the ballot measures, but there was really only one race this cycle that mattered to Democrats and they lost it.

It was a dismal night for Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, coming after a clumsy campaign that stumbled its way to election day.

The incumbent under performed her 2012 results by significant margins in several key eastern North Dakota counties, and in the western part of the state she got flat-out mugged by Congressman Kevin Cramer.

That’s worth thinking about for a moment.


Despite the impression we can sometimes get from the Fargo-centric media in our state, most North Dakotans don’t live in Cass County. Though Democrats don’t pay a lot of attention to western North Dakota, a lot of voters live there, and the ballots they cast count too.

Our Democratic friends will try to find some nugget from the election results to hang their hats on. Some excuse or argument to obscure the fact that their political party stands for very little North Dakotans want these days.

Maybe they’ll talk about state Sen. Erin Oban who appears, based on preliminary votes, to have held on to her status as the only Democrat elected in western North Dakota.

But that’s some thin gruel.

I’ll leave the spin to our liberal friends, but one thing they ought to consider is whether or not they want to continue to be Heidi Heitkamp’s political party.

For the last decade or so, the North Dakota Democratic Party has been organized around the Heitkamps.

Many active, involved Democrats complain to me about their party being used as an apparatus to boost Joel Heitkamp’s radio show, and protect Heidi Heitkamp’s political career.

If you don’t believe me, ask yourself who the Democrats have developed as the next wave of candidates to run for office now that Heitkamp has been sent into retirement.


Oban is a name Democrats can talk about. Perhaps House Minority Leader Cory Mock, too.

After those names, who is left?

It gets uglier.

A decade ago North Dakota Democrats had 21 seats in the state Senate, 36 in the state House, control of the Agriculture Commissioner’s office, and all three seats in the federal delegation.

Heading into election night Democrats had 9 seats in the Senate, 13 in the House, control zero statewide executive branch offices, and only Heitkamp’s seat in the federal delegation.

It’s a grim time for North Dakota Democrats, and I think they’re going to be tempted to try and drag Heitkamp into another race in the 2020 cycle.

Maybe for governor?

That would be a mistake.


After their disastrous 2016 election cycle, Democrats began to move away from the Clintons.

It would behoove North Dakota Democrats, I think, to begin to move away from the Heitkamps.

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