After Cramer learned last year that Heitkamp would be accompanying the president on Air Force One to North Dakota, he complained bitterly to the White House, according to two people with direct knowledge of the discussions. Trump has asked Cramer whether he likes Heitkamp, and when the congressman responds yes, the president seems to be “relieved,” Cramer said. com/nddemnpl/status/1000102931704700928″ target=”_blank”>video featuring a montage of clips of the president praising Heitkamp and shaking her hand as Cramer looks on – set to the sad sounds of R.
When a small group of alarmed White House aides caught wind that Sen. Heidi Heitkamp – one of the most endangered Democrats up for reelection in 2018 – would be attending President Donald Trump’s bill signing last week, they raced to stop it.
Word eventually reached Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has made unseating Heitkamp a top priority. He opted not to intervene, and the invitation stood: As the president signed a banking deregulation bill into law before a national audience, Heitkamp was right next to him, the only Democrat in the room.
As the election year kicks into high gear, Republicans have grown increasingly frustrated with Trump’s ongoing flirtation with the freshman senator. At a time when many in the GOP fear that the president’s unpredictable style will undercut their best-laid midterm plans, the relationship has given Heitkamp – who is seeking reelection in a state where Trump won nearly two-thirds of the vote – fodder to portray herself as a presidential ally.
Her office keeps a running list of the dozen-plus meetings Heitkamp has had with Trump and his top advisers since the 2016 election. And the senator is fond of noting that she forged close ties with Trump’s former top economist, Gary Cohn. The president met with Heitkamp in Trump Tower after the 2016 election to discuss a possible Cabinet position, asked her to join him on Air Force One, and invited her onstage to join him and her Republican opponent, Rep. Kevin Cramer, during an appearance in North Dakota.
“Everyone is saying, ‘What’s she doing up here?'” the president said at the September event to sell his tax reform plan, which Heitkamp eventually opposed. “But I’ll tell you what. Good woman, and I think we’ll have your support, I hope we’ll have your support. And thank you very much, senator, thank you for coming up.”
After last week’s bill signing, Heitkamp’s allies raced to capitalize. The North Dakota Democratic Party sent out a tweet with an image of Cramer looking on uncomfortably as the president stood next to Heitkamp.
“At a bill signing today, @HeidiHeitkamp got a shout out and all @kevincramer got was a photo op next to a chair,” the state party boasted.
“We will see footage of this on every platform,” said Doug Heye, a former top Republican National Committee official. “It’s a huge gift for her campaign.”
Trump aggressively recruited Cramer to give up his House seat to take on Heitkamp, and his actions since have left some of Cramer’s closest allies feeling snubbed. They note that while Trump has savaged Democratic incumbents Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Jon Tester of Montana and visited a growing list of states to pump up Republican Senate hopefuls – most recently Tennessee, where he appeared Tuesday on behalf of Rep. Marsha Blackburn – he has yet to make a campaign appearance with Cramer. Nor has the attack dog-in-chief attacked Heitkamp.
After Cramer learned last year that Heitkamp would be accompanying the president on Air Force One to North Dakota, he complained bitterly to the White House, according to two people with direct knowledge of the discussions. Heitkamp, Cramer predicted at the time, would try to use it to her political advantage. (A Cramer adviser, Pat Finken, denied that the congressman had complained about the senator riding on Air Force One.)
The administration has taken steps to assure Cramer that he has the president’s full support. The congressman has been regularly in touch with White House political director Bill Stepien, and the two met earlier this month. Trump has agreed to hold a rally for Cramer later this year.
In an interview, Cramer shrugged off Heitkamp’s attendance at the bill signing and said there would soon be “clarity” on who Trump supports in the race.
Yet the congressman declined to predict whether the president would go after Heitkamp aggressively, as Trump has done with other Democratic incumbents. Cramer seemed aware of the warmth between the president and the senator. Trump has asked Cramer whether he likes Heitkamp, and when the congressman responds yes, the president seems to be “relieved,” Cramer said.
“Politically, North Dakota’s a pretty nice state. So I don’t know that turning it on her is necessarily politically helpful to me,” Cramer said. “They may just be concerned that she’s a woman and maybe that has an impact. I just don’t know.”
Heitkamp said she’s proud of her ability to work with the president.
“I have a friendly relationship. I have a very important working relationship,” she said in an interview, “not just with him but other members of the administration.”
Trump’s reluctance to go after Heitkamp stems in part from the simple fact that he needs her vote. With Republicans clinging to a narrow Senate majority, the White House has pushed for her support on several contentious votes, including the recent confirmations of CIA Director Gina Haspel and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. She also backed Trump’s nominations of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt.
Last week’s signing ceremony was organized by White House Office of Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short. He said he extended an invitation to Heitkamp because she played a central role in passing the banking deregulation law.
“She was an original cosponsor of the bill,” Short said. “But she’s also someone who opposed tax relief, who opposed repeal of Obamacare, and someone who will always support Chuck Schumer. So you can be sure the president will be actively campaigning in North Dakota this cycle.”
Cramer’s February entry into the race followed an intense pursuit from Trump and top White House officials. After Cramer initially said in January that he wouldn’t run for Senate, he received overtures from Trump, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, and energy executive and Trump donor Harold Hamm within a three-day period. Trump also met with Cramer’s wife, Kris.
Cramer said Trump told him at the time that he’ll “be out there campaigning more than you are.” Trump’s entreaties, Republicans contend, helped to push Cramer into the contest. Cramer won his statewide, at-large House seat in 2012, the same year Heitkamp entered the Senate.
"The president leaned on him very hard. The president wanted the best candidate, and everyone in the state thought Kevin was the best candidate to beat Heidi," said Gary Emineth, a former North Dakota GOP chairman who is close with the congressman. "You know how the president is. He just doesn’t quit."
Heitkamp predicted that Trump would attack her eventually. While she has maintained a positive working relationship with the president, she said it pales in comparison to Cramer’s staunch loyalty.
“I don’t think anyone can match his Trump credentials,” Heitkamp said. “He is somebody who will always do what the president asks him to do, regardless of whether it’s good for North Dakota.”
As of late, the senator has been airing commercials that highlight her balancing act. “When I agree with the president I vote with him – and that’s over half my votes,” she says in a spot that began airing this month. “And if his policies hurt North Dakota, he knows I’ll speak up.”
Cramer accused Heitkamp of acting like a “Republican wannabe” with her occasional support for key Trump nominees.
“Her trying to cozy up to Donald Trump has resulted in good votes,” Cramer said. “But every time she tries to become more like me, it’s more flattering to me than it is to her.”
Democrats, however, couldn’t be happier to portray Cramer as a jilted lover.
Last week, the North Dakota Democratic Party released a video featuring a montage of clips of the president praising Heitkamp and shaking her hand as Cramer looks on – set to the sad sounds of R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts.”
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