GRAND FORKS, N.D. (AP) — U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who is facing a tough re-election fight as the only Democratic statewide officeholder in North Dakota, expressed optimism Saturday for the future of her party in conservative-leaning states such as her own.
Those who "have written the obits for the Democratic Party in the middle of the country — they are wrong," Heitkamp told cheering convention delegates, who endorsed her Saturday to run for the Senate this fall against Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer. It's expected to be one of the toughest Senate races in the U.S., with Democrats hoping to hold onto the seat and pick up others to reverse Republicans' razor-thin majority.
Democrats such as Heitkamp are hopeful after strong performances by Democratic moderates in races in Republican territory in Pennsylvania and Alabama.
"In the reddest of red places there are people who want something different than what we have now," Heitkamp told the crowd.
Heitkamp's charm and perceived political independence have made her popular in North Dakota. Even many who disagree with her politically like her personally. At the Democratic convention, children came up to hug her and she was welcomed with chants of "We love you, Heidi."
During her speech, Heitkamp outlined broad successes and goals, including improving economic development and better access to health care.
Heitkamp also focused on health care in an interview with The Associated Press, saying Cramer's vote in the House to repeal the federal health care law with no plan to replace it was among the best examples of him being out of touch with the electorate. The attempt by Republicans failed.
"The health care vote is not a vote that represents North Dakotans," she said.
Heitkamp has sought to present herself as independent of both Republicans and Democrats. But she said Cramer, an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump, would be a "rubber stamp for an administration that does not include everyone in this country."
Cramer told the AP Saturday that Heitkamp is "miscalculating" the North Dakota electorate.
"She and the Democratic Party are not in sync with North Dakota," said Cramer, who claims his campaign's polling shows he is far ahead of Heitkamp. "She would be in a lot less trouble politically if she had voted more for the Trump agenda than she has."
Cramer also said he is not in full lockstep with the Trump administration, citing his recent criticism of the president's new tariffs on steel and aluminum.
While Heitkamp has sometimes voted with Republicans, the GOP has criticized her for voting against the new tax law and for other instances where she lined up with her party.
Former Vice President Joe Biden also spoke at the convention, and Heitkamp said he was likely to continue to campaign for her in the state. She said Biden's working-class roots appeal to North Dakota residents.
"He has a lot of credibility," she said. "I expect he will be doing what he can to help folks from my part of the country."
Heitkamp, 62, grew up in Mantador, a rural community of fewer than 100 people in southeastern North Dakota. While in high school, college and law school Heitkamp worked as everything form a waitress to a construction worker. The first elected office she held was as the state's tax commissioner. She went on to serve as attorney general before running unsuccessfully for governor in 2000. During that campaign, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent successful treatment. She didn't run for office again until 2012, when she narrowly beat freshman U.S. Rep. Rick Berg by about 3,000 votes to win her Senate seat.
Heitkamp told the AP that the race against Cramer will be just as tough, if not tougher, than the campaign against Berg.
Cramer has a long political history in North Dakota, is "a known commodity" and a "very experienced" candidate, she said.
Still, Heitkamp believes she has almost 100 percent name recognition in North Dakota.
"I think it's because of the red hair," she joked.