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Heitkamp tops Trump’s list for agriculture secretary

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp has emerged as President-elect Donald Trump’s leading choice for Agriculture secretary, sources close to the transition tell POLITICO.

The first-term Democrat from North Dakota and member of the Senate Agriculture Committee has been a vocal advocate for farmers and broke from her party on several controversial policy issues, including the labeling of genetically modified foods and environmental protection for wetlands and waterways.

A special election to replace Heitkamp would almost certainly turn her seat over to a Republican, so the choice would give Trump a chance to appear conciliatory to Democrats, albeit with a lower-profile Cabinet role, while allowing the GOP to bolster its Senate majority.

Heitkamp’s office and Trump’s transition team did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Heitkamp, who met with the president-elect at Trump Tower on Dec. 2, is facing a tough race in a deep red state in 2018. In a further sign she is a strong contender for a Cabinet post, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell met with North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer on Tuesday about a potential open Senate seat. A source close to the transition said gaining another Republican Senate seat was on the list of reasons for picking Heitkamp.

It remains unclear if Heitkamp would accept the job. Democrats are hoping she’ll turn it down.

“I don’t think she’s going anywhere,” former North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan, a Democrat, told POLITICO.

Heitkamp’s departure from the Senate would be bad news for Democrats as they try to hold onto every seat in the upper chamber that they can. Twenty-three Democrats and the two independent senators who caucus with them, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders and Maine’s Angus King, are up for reelection in two years, with five of the Democratic races considered competitive. Four others are in states that twice voted against Obama as well as for Trump, including North Dakota.

Heitkamp replaced retiring four-term Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad in 2012 after beating Republican Rep. Rick Berg by fewer than 3,000 votes. She previously worked for nearly 12 years as the director of the Dakota Gasification Company’s Great Plains Synfuels Plant. She served as North Dakota’s attorney general from 1992 to 2000 and made a failed bid for governor in 2000, losing to John Hoeven, now the senior senator from North Dakota.

The senator scored only 50 percent in the annual ranking of votes by the left-leaning congressional watchdog Food Policy Action.

Heitkamp is one of the Senate’s more conservative Democrats and has been known to side with Republicans to please her North Dakota district. In 2015, she was one of only three Democrats who voted for a voluntary GMO bill labeling bill, written by Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and backed by big agriculture groups, that would have preempted state laws.

Heitkamp, at the time, said she didn’t like the blanket ban on state laws — and the message it would send to labeling activists on the left — but voted for the measure anyway for interstate commerce reasons.

“We’re also in many ways telling these consumers who have activists at the grassroots that they don’t need to know. That we know better than they do about the kind of information they need about what’s in their food,” she said. “That’s a tough sell. It’s a tough sell in a political environment where people think that this Washington D.C. doesn’t listen to them.”

She was one of a handful of Democratic senators to co-sponsor a bill to require the EPA to revise its Waters of the United States rule, which defines which waters are protected under the Clean Water Act, after consulting with states, farmers and ranchers. She has also voted against Democratic gun control bills, citing deep opposition from her district.

Ian Kullgren and Darren Samuelsohn contributed to this report.

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