DICKINSON, N.D. — Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a centrist Democrat from North Dakota, was already facing a tough reelection battle this fall as she tries to walk the line between being a member of a party that is strongly anti-Trump while also trying to win the support of Republican-leaning voters she’ll need to win in a conservative state where the president remains enormously popular.
The looming battle over a soon-to-be-vacant Supreme Court seat after Justice Anthony Kennedy announced last week he will retire on July 31 is unlikely to make her campaign easier. While the fate of Trump’s eventual nominee rests largely on the ability of the Senate GOP to hold ranks, the votes of Heitkamp and her fellow red state Democrats could prove decisive if the White House is unable to win the backing of moderate Republicans.
Heitkamp isn’t revealing her cards just yet. “I think people want someone who is going to actually sit down and visit with the person who is nominated, find out what their history is — not just on social issues but also on economic issues — and do a thorough vetting,” she told Yahoo News. “That’s what I intend to do.”
But the Senate maneuvering over the court pick is just one battle. Trump and other Republicans, anxious to maintain the GOP’s narrow control of the Senate, are also aiming to make the Supreme Court vote a defining issue in the midterm elections — forcing vulnerable Democrats to choose between their party (and possibly their personal convictions) and a president who easily won their states in 2016.
Perhaps nowhere is the pressure more evident than in North Dakota, a state where Heitkamp is running neck and neck with Rep. Kevin Cramer, a three-term congressman Trump personally lobbied to enter the race. Heitkamp, a popular Democrat who narrowly won her first race for Senate in 2012 by appealing to Republicans, is running on a record of being someone willing to rise above her party to get things done in Washington. She pointed out in a campaign ad that she has voted “over half the time with President Trump,” including on White House-backed policies and nominations. “And that made a lot of people in Washington mad,” she says in the ad.
She isn’t wrong. Heitkamp angered her party when she and two other Democrats — Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana — broke ranks last year to vote for Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s first Supreme Court pick. More recently, she was one of seven Democrats who voted to confirm Mike Pompeo as Trump’s secretary of state, and one of the six who voted for Gina Haspel to be CIA director. Heitkamp has been a regular visitor to the White House — including in May, when she stood alongside Trump at a bill signing, a photo op that Cramer publicly complained about. In late 2016, Trump considered offering Heitkamp a job in his Cabinet, but she turned it down.
But just hours after Kennedy announced his retirement last week, Trump appeared at a previously scheduled campaign rally on Cramer’s behalf in Fargo, N.D., and he repeatedly trashed Heitkamp, ignoring her past support and their friendly rapport. “Heidi will vote no to any pick we make for the Supreme Court. She will be told to do so,” Trump declared. “Democrats want judges who will rewrite the Constitution any way they want to do it and take away your Second Amendment, erase your borders, throw open the jailhouse doors and destroy your freedoms.”
Yet less than 24 hours later, Heitkamp was back at the White House to meet with Trump about his pending Supreme Court pick. The president also met with Manchin, Donnelly and Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska in an effort to game out where the senators — all likely swing votes — stood on the vacancy. After the meeting, Heitkamp tweeted a video filmed just outside the White House gate, calling attention to the meeting and noting that she was there at “at the request of the president.”
This evening I met with President Trump at @WhiteHouse. As I said, if the president wants to meet with me, I’m ready to participate and advocate for North Dakota. And that’s exactly what happened today. pic.twitter.com/LNOsIwSbTf
— Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (@SenatorHeitkamp) June 29, 2018
Back in her home state a few days later for a week of campaigning during the July 4 recess, Heitkamp dismissed Trump’s recent knocks against her as merely “political talk” and pointed to her meeting with the president as evidence of her ability to transcend politics to work on behalf of her constituents.
She said she reminded Trump that she had supported Gorsuch after examining his records and “getting to know him,” and she said she would approach this nomination the same way. But she also allowed that the effort to fill Kennedy’s seat “would be a little different pick” because Gorsuch was filling the seat of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, a staunch conservative on the bench, and Kennedy was a more moderate force.
In a swipe at Cramer, whose campaign platform is to carry out Trump’s agenda, she emphasized her independence and open mind about whoever the nominee will be.
But she acknowledged to Yahoo News that the Supreme Court fight could “intensify” what has already been a “pretty intense” reelection race. In North Dakota, television airwaves have already been blanketed with almost nonstop campaign ads, paid for by Cramer and outside conservative groups, attacking Heitkamp for, among other things, endorsing Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign.
Heitkamp has responded with ads of her own — mostly positive spots that focus on her work on trade and economic issues on behalf of the state’s agricultural industry. She has criticized the looming trade war between the Trump administration and China, which could devastate North Dakota’s export-dependent soybean farmers.
But a Supreme Court fight could nevertheless force her into a debate over abortion, a hot-button issue in North Dakota that Heitkamp, who is pro-choice, has largely avoided for most of her three decades in public life.
North Dakota has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, and just one abortion provider in the entire state. If the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision were overturned, there would be a near-total abortion ban in the state, based on a 2007 law passed by the state legislature.
Heitkamp said in an interview that she believed that Roe v. Wade was a “precedent that has been long decided,” a similar position to Collins’s. But Heitkamp was less clear on how the potential nominee’s views on the issue would affect her vote.
She said it was unlikely the nominee would “tell you definitely one way or another what they are going to do on any case” and, she added, “they shouldn’t.”
“It’s more important that we find out what their standards are for reversing long-standing precedent. If you think this person’s going to stand up and say, ‘Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided, and I will change it,’ everybody is living in a dream world,” she said.
She also seemed to throw cold water on the idea that Roe v. Wade could be overturned, allowing that “things could change,” and ultimately no one really knows. “We’ve had majority Republican courts for years. They’ve never reversed Roe v. Wade. That’s what people forget,” she said. “They’ve been given opportunities to do it. People who make assumptions haven’t been following this very closely.”
Heitkamp said she wanted to remain open to whoever the nominee might be, dismissing the argument that “you need to say right now that you’re going to support the president’s nominee.”
“We don’t even know who he or she is,” she said. “It just seems premature and really inappropriate, given our responsibility for advising.”
But not unlike Manchin and Donnelly, who have faced similar pressure, Heitkamp is likely to be attacked regardless of her ultimate decision on Trump’s nominee. While Trump bashed Heitkamp, suggesting she would bow to pressure from national Democratic leaders to vote against his nominee, he also admitted that she could vote for his pick — but implied she would be pandering to North Dakota voters, a message that has been echoed by Cramer in recent days.
“Maybe, because of this, she’ll be forced to vote yes. Who knows? But I will tell you she’ll vote no the day after the election on everything,” Trump said at the rally. “Justice Kennedy’s retirement makes the issue of Senate control one of the vital issues of our time. The most important thing we can do.”
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