ATLANTA – Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) endorsed South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg in his race for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee. “Pete Buttigieg is the only candidate who has demonstrated he has what it takes to organize and win in places where Democrats haven’t competed for years,” Heitkamp said in a statement. “This is bigger than what happened in 2016 and what will happen in 2018. This is about the future of our party. Pete Buttigieg offers us the best opportunity to be put on a path to victory for decades to come. I proudly endorse Pete Buttigieg and a fresh start for the Democratic Party.”
Heitkamp’s endorsement offers Buttigieg one final big-name endorsement – though she is not a voting DNC member – less than 24 hours before Democrats elect their next chairman. Though the two front-runners in the race continue to be Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and former Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, Buttigieg has been quietly gaining momentum and endorsements – most notably from five former DNC chairs, including Governor Howard Dean – in recent weeks and has emerged as the leading candidate from the rest of the field.
While the Ellison-Perez battle is seen by many observers and journalists as a proxy war through the prism of the 2016 primaries – Ellison was a Bernie Sanders supporter and Sanders has endorsed him in this race, Perez is seen as having the support of many former cabinet officials in the Obama administration and people close to the former president, including Vice President Joe Biden. Buttigieg – who wrote an essay praising Sanders when he was still in high school and endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016 – is perceived by many as a possible alternative candidate who is not tainted by the lingering Clinton-Sanders divisions within the party. At the recent DNC forum in Baltimore less than two weeks ago, Buttigieg said, “I didn’t enjoy the 2016 primary the first time. I don’t know why we would want to relive it a second time.”
Heitkamp is considered one of the Senate Democrats’ most vulnerable incumbents up for reelection in 2018. Though North Dakota has a record of electing Democratic senators like Heitkamp, Byron Dorgan, and Kent Conrad in the past, Donald Trump won the state by 36 points in 2016.