BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s decision to vote against Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court defies her state’s heavy support for President Donald Trump, but could boost the vulnerable Democrat’s standing with independents and women.
In a politically fraught decision Thursday just a month before the Nov. 6 election, Heitkamp cited concerns about the federal judge’s temperament in announcing her opposition. Heitkamp was one of a handful of senators who had not declared how she intended to vote.
“In my judgment, Judge Kavanaugh is not someone we want on the Supreme Court,” Heitkamp said on a conference call with reporters.
Heitkamp said she “without hesitation” believed Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a woman who accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when the two were teenagers in Maryland in the 1980s.
Heitkamp, locked in a difficult re-election battle with Republican Kevin Cramer , was under heavy pressure over Kavanaugh. Her vote was seen as a huge gamble in a reliably Republican state where Trump remains popular, heavily recruited Cramer to run and has campaigned for him.
Heitkamp downplayed the politics of the vote, even as she noted it would have been easier to back Kavanaugh .
“If this were a political decision for me I certainly would be deciding this the other way,” she said.
Heitkamp has waged a campaign attacking the third-term congressman as being a Trump acolyte and herself as an independent-minded Democrat. She voted in 2017 to confirm Trump’s first nominee to the high court, Neil Gorsuch.
Cramer’s team jumped on Heitkamp’s announcement, with an email blast reminder of Trump’s visit to Fargo in June when he said Heitkamp would vote against “any pick we make” for the high court. The campaign also made a fresh fundraising plea that portrayed Heitkamp as caving in to her “coastal elite base.”
Despite Cramer’s instinct to pounce, pollsters with insight into the national Senate landscape say Heitkamp’s opposition may reassure voters of her track record as an independent and moderate.
That by no means suggests that Heitkamp, fighting an uphill battle in the state Trump carried by 36 points, is surging ahead.
“It could put some energy back into her base and demonstrate to them that she’s fighting the fight,” said Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster who is consulting for candidates in several battleground Senate races, but not North Dakota.
It was noteworthy, Goeas said, that Heitkamp’s brother Joel, who hosts a Fargo talk radio program, was featured on MSNBC Thursday, defending his sister’s decision by saying she “needs to like the person she sees” when she brushes her teeth in the morning.
“For the men out there, maybe the campaign felt they needed to hear from him,” Goeas said.
Jim Margolis, a former longtime adviser to North Dakota Democratic Sens. Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan, said Heitkamp would have risked coming off as inauthentic had she voted for Kavanaugh.
“The worst thing you can do in North Dakota is try to pull a fast one on voters,” Margolis said, noting Heitkamp’s decades-long relationship with voters in the lightly populated farm state. “She will be better off sticking to her convictions and being straight about her thinking, rather than trying to fake it.”
The decision also could appeal to socially conservative independents turned off by the tawdry nature of the allegations against Kavanaugh, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said.
North Dakota has a disproportionately high married population, as well as Catholic and conservative Christian voters, said Lake, who has conducted surveys in North Dakota in the past year, though not for Heitkamp.
Heitkamp said she made her decision Thursday morning after reviewing the FBI’s supplemental file to the Senate on Kavanaugh. She said the report “created some inconsistencies in my mind with prior statements judge Kavanaugh made.”
Heitkamp said that “led to this question of truthfulness.” She said she also believed Kavanaugh “was overly evasive and had a selective memory.”
Jaime Cameron, of Fort Yates, a college student and a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, said he was leaning toward voting for Heitkamp in large part because he doesn’t think Cramer supports the state’s farmers enough. He said her decision to vote against Kavanaugh pushes him further in that direction.
“I agree with her, because I think Kavanaugh is lying,” he said.
Dee Gunsch, 83, a retired nurse in Bismarck, said she doesn’t agree with Heitkamp; she said she believes Ford, but regards Kavanaugh’s alleged behavior as “just part of growing up.”
But Gunsch said she wasn’t going to vote for Heitkamp anyway because the senator supports abortion rights.
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