BISMARCK, North Dakota (AP) — In places like Boston and Los Angeles, Democrats are blasting the new tax law as a boon to the rich and a corporate giveaway. In North Dakota, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp is lashing it, too. But in the VFW halls and farm co-ops of her state’s wind-swept prairies where cows outnumber people, Democrat Heitkamp sounds more like a deficits-hating Republican — circa 2011 — than she does her coastal colleagues.
“Most people in North Dakota — they don’t want to pass debt on to their kids,” she told The Associated Press this week. “And this is $1.5 trillion worth of debt.”
The first-term senator’s line of attack on the new tax cuts could well be pivotal in her fight to hold her seat and maintain the Democrats’ toehold in deeply Republican North Dakota. With the entrance last month of a top-shelf challenger, Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer, the race has emerged as an early indicator of whether Democrats can persuade conservative and moderate voters that the tax deal is bad policy, even if they begin to see their own paychecks grow.
“North Dakotans are pretty smart people. And they know that when you give somebody a tax break, they know that means either you have to cut a budget if you’re going to be responsible, or you have to pass that debt on to our citizens and our children,” Heitkamp said.
Cramer, on the other hand, told the AP last week: “She opposed the tax cuts and she could not have been more wrong.”
Heitkamp, a former gas company executive, secured her seat by reflecting her state’s conservative bent. She’s largely backed the oil-rich state’s corporate interests on energy, and has opposed some restrictions on guns. She is one of the least reliably partisan Democratic votes in the Senate.
President Donald Trump considered her a top target for persuasion as he launched his ultimately failed effort to win bipartisan support for his tax overhaul plan, which slashes corporate tax rates permanently and temporarily cuts taxes for some 80 percent of American households.
Heitkamp hitched a ride on Air Force One when Trump flew to Bismarck to promote the plan, but ultimately didn’t break from her party. She’s now one of 10 Democratic senators seeking re-election this year in states Trump carried in 2016, including five running against Republican House members who supported the tax bill.
While Cramer has broadly accused Democrats as blindly criticizing the measure as “a tax break for the wealthy,” Heitkamp, a former state tax commissioner, spends less time than her party colleagues stoking populist anger and more time on the long-term fiscal impact. At times she essentially sides with the conservative wing of the GOP, which also once fretted about the bill’s impact on the debt, but voted for it anyway.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates the legislation will add $1.4 trillion to the national debt over the next decade.
“When you look at the impact of this bill long term, I just didn’t buy the economic growth projections,” she said. “We’re going to explode the debt and deficit, so it’s fiscally irresponsible.”
Heitkamp’s message plays to North Dakotans’ frugal streak.
After an unprecedented oil bonanza prompted billions in increased state spending over the past decade, Republican Doug Burgum won the governorship in 2016 on a message of belt-tightening, and he balanced the budget last year through a series of austerity measures.
The economy in the state is on an upswing — with an unemployment rate of less than 3 percent — suggesting voters may not be clamoring for the tax breaks headed their way.
But other trends in the state are working against Heitkamp.
The new law doubles the standard deduction and favors states with low state and local taxes. Those changes are likely to disproportionately benefit North Dakotans, who benefit from lower-than-average property taxes, income taxes and housing costs, giving them less mortgage interest to claim.
The doubling of the standard deduction in the new law will allow, for example, a married North Dakota couple with two children earning a combined $85,000 to pay roughly $2,400 less in federal taxes in 2018, North Dakota Tax Commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger said.
“We’re one of the states that came out of this debate with one of the highest degrees of benefit nationally,” said Rauschenberger, a Republican.
National Republican groups are ready to pounce on Heitkamp for her tax vote, and other instances where she lined up with her party.
Unlike in 2012, when she beat Rep. Rick Berg by a scant 3,000 votes, Heitkamp now has a voting record Republicans can attack, including her recent vote against a measure to ban abortions after 20 weeks, said Lance Trover, a former strategist with the National Republican Senatorial Committee. North Dakota’s Legislature in recent years has passed some of the strictest abortion laws in the county.
“Now, she’s made some votes, including on tax cuts,” Troyer said.
But Heitkamp says “so be it,” if the tax vote, which she calls a “defining” decision, makes her a one-term senator.
Her tax vote is seen as a vulnerability, she says. But “quite honestly I think this tax vote is a vulnerability for the other side, And you know that is a discussion I’ll have any day of the week with anyone.”