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Port: Forget governor, is Heitkamp angling for a cabinet appointment?

Rob Port

MINOT, N.D. — Recently Joel Heitkamp, brother of former U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, has been begging the question about whether or not his sister will run for governor.

It’s a business move. Anyone who has seen the numbers knows Heitkamp’s radio audience is so old it’s shrinking due to death. He’s trying to wring the last bit of relevance he can get out of the sunset of his sister’s career.

Many people think Heitkamp really does have her eyes on the 2020 gubernatorial race, which will also include incumbent Republican Doug Burgum once he gets around to announcing a re-election campaign.

I’m one of them.

In April I wrote that Heitkamp’s involvement in the One Country Project was about rehabilitating her public image after a stinging election loss in the 2018 U.S. Senate race, with an eye toward launching a gubernatorial campaign in the coming months.

What if something else is true?

“She’s not a ninny,” a longtime Republican politico told me recently. “She can’t win in North Dakota any more.”

Heitkamp is done with electoral politics, this person believes, and is instead using the One Country Project as a vehicle for a potential cabinet appointment by a future Democratic president.

This is an intriguing scenario.

Heitkamp does have a lot of money left over from her Senate campaign. Over $6 million, per the last report filed with the Federal Election Commission, and every penny could be used without restriction in a gubernatorial campaign.

But Gov. Doug Burgum is not only personally wealthy, he can tap into a wide network of donors very quickly. Heck, Bill Gates gave his campaign $100,000 in 2016.

Some could argue the shine is off Burgum since 2016, but that’s true of any incumbent.

If we’re going to talk about a decline in popularity, let’s not forget that Heitkamp lost a statewide election in 2018 by a very wide margin.

Does Heitkamp really want to risk a campaign again?

Maybe not. “She’s done with electoral politics,” is what my politico friend had to say about it.

A campaign for a cabinet position has to seem more appealing to Heitkamp. It’s not something to be decided by the North Dakota electorate which has turned its back to her, so it’s lower risk. It would also allow Heitkamp to cash in on her not-exactly-well-earned reputation as an expert on rural voters on the presidential campaign trail.

Here’s a possible scenario: Heitkamp uses the One Country Project as cover to avoid endorsing a candidate until a winner emerges from the national primary process. She then quits that project and makes herself a midwestern surrogate for Democratic nominee.

If her candidate wins, she finagles an appointment to the Department of Agriculture. Or maybe Interior.

Heitkamp then concludes her carer on a high note, instead of going out after a thumping from Kevin Cramer, and her brother enjoys a few more years of insider political connections before the rest of his audience dies off.

A previous version of this column stated an incorrect amount of money Gov. Doug Burgum received from Bill Gates. Gates gave Burgum's campaign $100,000 in 2016.

Rob Port, founder of, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Plain Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.