At The Washington Post, Amber Phillips marvels:
This is not a story you’d expect to read in 2017, but it happened: President Trump went to North Dakota on Wednesday and praised its Democratic senator, who is up for reelection next year, as a “good woman.”
“Come on up, senator,” Trump told a crowd at an oil refinery in Mandan, as he had a called up some of the state’s elected officials, all of them Republican, save Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. “These are great people. They work hard. They’re for you 100 percent.”
He went on: “And we just want their support, because we need support. You see that with what’s happening in Congress. Nobody can get anything through Congress. We need support, so thank you, senator. Senator Heitkamp. Everyone’s saying: What’s she doing up here? 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.”
The president of the United States may not be popular with Americans at large, but he certainly has some sway in this state. And Trump just gave Heitkamp a potentially massive boost as she tries to remain the state’s lone statewide elected Democrat.
Well, maybe. It’s true: Heitkamp is a Democrat facing a tough campaign for reelection in an overwhelmingly Republican state, and under normal circumstances a kind word from a Republican president would be an unalloyed gift.
But the Republican president is Donald Trump, and circumstances are therefore not normal. In 2016 Trump won almost 63% of the vote in North Dakota — but Republican Senator John Hoeven, who appeared on the same ballot, won over 78% of the vote. That means a non-trivial chunk of Republican voters in North Dakota weren’t comfortable with Trump.
To win reelection, Heitkamp needs some voters who normally vote Republican to cross over and support her. Are potential crossover voters more likely to have voted for both Trump and Hoeven, or more likely to have voted just for Hoeven? And can Heitkamp court the former group without alienating the latter group? The answers aren’t entirely obvious. The election is more than a year away, and Trump being Trump, there’s plenty of time for both his public posture toward Heitkamp and his popularity in North Dakota to change.
Republicans have every reason to be annoyed with the president for his kindness to a Democrat in a swing state. But while Heitkamp can take comfort in the possibility of spinning Trump’s “good woman” soundbite into electoral gold, she may find next year that her uphill path to reelection remains just as treacherous.