Five takeaways from the first North Dakota Senate debate

Five takeaways from the first North Dakota Senate debate

Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampThe Hill's Morning Report — Biden steadies in third debate as top tier remains the same Trump wins 60 percent approval in rural areas of key states Pence to push new NAFTA deal in visit to Iowa MORE (D-N.D.) and Rep. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerPrimary challenges show potential cracks in Trump's GOP Castro, Steyer join pledge opposing the Keystone XL pipeline EPA proposes rolling back states' authority over pipeline projects MORE (R-N.D.) went toe-to-toe in a heated debate on Thursday, trading barbs on everything from President TrumpDonald John TrumpJimmy Carter: 'I hope there's an age limit' on presidency White House fires DHS general counsel: report Trump to cap California trip with visit to the border MORE’s trade war with China to bitter campaign attack ads.

The debate marked the first time the two candidates met face to face in the race to represent North Dakota in the Senate. Heitkamp, who won her first Senate race in 2012, is among the most vulnerable Democrats seeking reelection this year.

Trump won North Dakota handily in 2016, and Republicans see the state as prime territory to expand their narrow 51-49 Senate majority.

The race has grown increasingly tense in recent weeks in the wake of a partisan brawl over Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughTrump dismisses NYT explanation on Kavanaugh correction Kavanaugh impeachment push hits Capitol buzz saw Katie Pavlich: The Democrats' desperate do-overs MORE’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. That fight — and several others — were on full display in the debate on Thursday.

Here are five of the key takeaways:


Heitkamp defends reputation as a moderate

Heitkamp has garnered a reputation as one of the most moderate Democrats in the Senate, and she aggressively defended that reputation on Thursday.

“I ran six years ago and I said ‘I’m not joining any team,’ " she said. “I’m not 100 percent with anyone other than North Dakota. And I’ve been able to work across party lines and achieve some pretty extraordinary things.”

In responding to a question about whether she supports privatizing the U.S. Postal Service — a proposal made by Trump — Heitkamp touted her work with Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsGOP struggles with retirement wave Lewandowski, Democrats tangle at testy hearing Meadows, Cotton introduce bill to prevent district judges from blocking federal policy changes MORE (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, on mail delivery and service issues.

“I think that the future has to be with people who are moderate. People that aren’t going, like Congressman Cramer, 100 percent of the time with one party.”

But Cramer rebuffed Heitkamp’s claims of bipartisanship, saying “she was with Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama meets with Greta Thunberg: 'One of our planet's greatest advocates' Trump: Cokie Roberts 'never treated me nicely' but 'was a professional' Obama, Bush among those paying tribute to Cokie Roberts: 'A trailblazing figure' MORE nearly 90 percent of the time.”

“The problem is, you can be on both teams and you maybe feel good about it, but when one team is so much better for North Dakota than the other team, you don’t abandon that good team half the time,” Cramer said.


Cramer ties himself with Trump

If there was one argument that Cramer consistently raised on Thursday, it was that he stands with Trump — and that Trump stands with North Dakota.

“Donald Trump stands with North Dakota more often than Heidi Heitkamp stands with North Dakota,” Cramer said. “He’s on the right side of North Dakota. That’s what matters.”

Throughout the hourlong debate, Cramer hailed Trump’s work in office and criticized Heitkamp for siding with the president only “50 percent of the time.” Cramer defended Trump’s trade war with China and praised him for raising military pay and for his efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Heitkamp shot back at one point, criticizing the congressman for touting Trump’s work in office more than his own.

“I think it’s interesting that Congressman Cramer talks about President Trump,” she said. “Why not talk about what you’ve done? Why not talk about your accomplishments?”


Relitigating the Kavanaugh fight

Few Senate races have seen the fight over Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court play a more prominent role. And on Thursday, both Heitkamp and Cramer sought to rehash that battle.

Heitkamp invited Republican attacks earlier this month when she voted against Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the high court after sexual assault allegations emerged against the nominee.

But in their debate, both Heitkamp and Cramer decried the bitter partisan brawl that broke out amid Kavanaugh’s confirmation process.

“This process created a scene in Washington, D.C., and across the country that was inappropriate. It was unseemly, and it was not becoming of either the Senate or the Supreme Court,” Heitkamp said.

For his part, Cramer defended Kavanaugh’s reputation as a jurist and decried what he called mob rule by Democratic lawmakers.

“The process was hijacked by a mob,” he said, later adding: “We are fortunate he got confirmed.”


The most heated topic: An attack ad

The most heated exchange of the night wasn’t over immigration. It wasn’t over health care or military spending or trade. It was over an attack ad accusing Cramer of giving himself a five-figure raise while serving on North Dakota’s Public Service Commission.

Cramer raised the spot twice in the hourlong debate, accusing Heitkamp of brazenly lying by authorizing the ad.

“I still want to get to what you were thinking, Sen. Heitkamp, when you authorized the ad saying that I voted a $23,000 raise for myself — that I gave myself a raise,” he said. “You know that’s not true.”

Heitkamp responded to Cramer’s criticism by arguing that he should have maintained the salary on the Public Service Commission that he was promised when we was elected.

“You were elected with that salary, you should maintain that salary,” she said. That drew a fiery response from Cramer, who appeared visibly irked.

“That answer was so goofy I should almost give you my 30 seconds to say it again,” he said. “Did you listen to yourself?”

Cramer served on the Public Service Commission from 2003 until 2012, and during that time his salary increased by roughly $25,000. But fact-checking website PolitiFact rated Heitkamp’s ad “false," pointing out that Cramer did not authorize his own pay raise. Rather, it was the approved by the state Legislative Assembly.



Both Heitkamp and Cramer have tried to weaponize Trump's trade war. And the battle over tariffs was on full display in Thursday’s debate.

Heitkamp slammed the tariffs early on in the evening, saying that they would ultimately serve to make North Dakota less competitive, not just nationally, but internationally.

“From the very beginning I could see that these tariffs were going to have a very dramatic and negative effect on North Dakota farmers,” she said.

“We have to recognize that if we’re not trading internationally in North Dakota our ag products — we will not be successful on the farm.”

But Cramer largely defended the president’s tariffs, which sparked reciprocal measures from China and other U.S. trading partners. He said he felt an obligation to side with Trump on the issue.

“When our president picks the tools he’s going to use, I think we’re obligated to stand with the United States of America,” he said.

Trump’s decision to impose stiff tariffs on tens of billions of dollars worth of Chinese products prompted Beijing to slap duties on U.S. goods, including many agricultural products. Those tariffs have had a particularly hard impact on North Dakota’s soybean industry.