Has Donald Trump and his transition team started broadening their talent search to include Democrats in his administration — or are they playing some eight-dimensional chess with the US Senate? CNN’s Manu Raju reports that Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) will meet with Trump as he mulls over the choices for his Cabinet:
Heidi Heitkamp, Dem senator up for reelection in red-state of ND, meeting with TRUMP today in Trump Tower
— Manu Raju (@mkraju) December 1, 2016
Raju later clarified that the meeting will take place tomorrow, not today. The Hill followed up with the Trump transition team, which confirmed the meeting but not its purpose:
North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat about to face a difficult reelection in 2018, will meet with President-elect Donald Trump in New York as he continues to take meetings to shape his Cabinet.
Trump transition aide Jason Miller confirmed the meeting on a Thursday call with reporters but did not add any information as to what they would speak about. …
Miller did not say whether Heitkamp is being considered for a role in the administration, noting that some visitors are only meeting with the president-elect “to provide their insight and experience as to how to make the administration more effective for the American people.”
“With regard to the senator, she comes very highly recommended, very highly qualified, is a proven leader and would be an asset in any role or capacity,” Miller said.
Heitkamp has been known for her more conservative political views, especially on energy. She won her only term in 2012 when Democrats did better than expected in the election, thanks to unexpectedly long coattails from Barack Obama. She managed to outperform Obama by a wide margin in that election, but only barely beat former Congressman Rick Berg to keep the seat in Democratic hands after the retirement of Kent Conrad. There is little doubt that she’s endangered in 2018 and in a midterm election turnout model, so the time might be propitious for Heitkamp to look for greener pastures.
What portfolio could she take? Heitkamp is the ranking member of the Agriculture committee in the Senate, so replacing Tom Vilsack is a distinct possibility. Energy could be another possibility, as could Interior, but those are two areas in which Republicans want to make major regulatory reforms and changes. Heitkamp might not be the best partner for that. Adding Heitkamp as Ag Secretary would give Trump a bipartisan tenor to his new administration, without necessarily interfering too much with efforts to change the nature of the federal government.
More importantly, though, appointing Heitkamp to a Cabinet position takes away a Democratic vote in the Senate that Chuck Schumer can hardly afford to lose. Assuming that Heitkamp gets confirmed and takes office by February 1, North Dakota governor Jack Dalrymple would have 95 days to hold a special election. State law does not give Dalrymple the authority to make an interim appointment, so the seat would remain empty until May — at the same time that votes would be expected on a Supreme Court nomination and Trump’s other Cabinet appointees. Republicans would hold an enormous turnout advantage in a special election, and one might assume that they would have Rep. Kevin Cramer run for the seat, who has won three straight statewide races for that at-large House seat.
That might actually help Democrats in the midterms, at least marginally. They have to defend 23 seats to the GOP’s 10 in 2018, so losing that seat now would mean money they can save for other races two years from now. If Heitkamp ran for re-election, they’d be duty-bound to invest in that race; with a Republican incumbent there instead, they can skip over it without much fuss.
It’s a clever move, if that’s what this meeting is about. If they can woo Heitkamp into the administration, it’s a move that will pay all sorts of dividends down the road.
Update: Via the Washington Post’s Amber Phillips, here’s Heitkamp’s statement on the meeting:
Senator Heitkamp statement on meeting with President Elect Trump: pic.twitter.com/ZS3ZcQj2S4
— Kevin Cirilli (@kevcirilli) December 1, 2016
Heitkamp is “motivated first and foremost by how I can be most helpful to the people of North Dakota.” Let’s quantify that; where can Heitkamp be more helpful? As a member of a Senate minority in opposition to the White House for the next two years, or as a member of the administration? It doesn’t sound as if Heitkamp will need much convincing.
In related news, Chris Cillizza notes that “Democrats have now lost an entire generation of Congressional leaders.” His focus is on the House, but Democrats have the same problem in the Senate — that the previous generation’s leadership refuses to leave. Heitkamp’s departure would just accelerate that.