PETERSBURG, N.D. — Before Senator Heidi Heitkamp spoke to constituents in this tiny rural town, population 175, Mary Ann Dunbar confessed that she had reservations about Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court.
But Ms. Dunbar, a 67-year-old social worker, was not about to press her Democratic senator to take a stand against the judge, as she fretted that a vote against a Trump nominee could jeopardize Ms. Heitkamp’s already difficult bid for a second Senate term in a state where the president is popular. It wouldn’t be worth it.
“I think you have to be realistic,” she said. “He’s probably going to win anyway, and if it makes the people of North Dakota happy, then I’d rather have her there.”
As Senate Democrats try to hold their ground in midterm elections in which they are defending a daunting list of seats, Ms. Heitkamp is a prime example of why the party’s fight against Judge Kavanaugh faces almost impossible odds.
To block Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation, Democrats almost certainly will need their entire 49-member caucus to oppose him, and then at least one Republican to break with his or her party. But Ms. Heitkamp is one of 10 Democratic senators running for re-election in states won by Mr. Trump in the 2016 election, and her difficult race would get even more challenging if she votes against Judge Kavanaugh. She was one of three Democrats who voted last year for Mr. Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, Neil M. Gorsuch.
Confirmation hearings for Judge Kavanaugh are still weeks away, but already the pressure on Ms. Heitkamp is mounting. Abortion opponents, hoping for a rebalanced conservative court to overturn Roe v. Wade, gathered this month outside her office in Bismarck, the state capital, to urge her to vote in favor of his confirmation. The Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative advocacy group, has aired commercials in North Dakota promoting his nomination, and it released a new ad on Monday that frames Ms. Heitkamp’s choice in stark terms.
On the other side, a liberal group, Demand Justice, has targeted her with advertising calling for her to vote against the judge, warning that as a member of the Supreme Court, he could put at risk protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions.
Ms. Heitkamp is playing her cards close to her vest; she says she will not make a decision until after the hearings. As for her initial impression, she said, “He seems to be a fairly standard conservative judge, and obviously highly qualified.”
It remains to be seen how big a role the court fight will play in her re-election bid: In several hours Ms. Heitkamp spent with constituents earlier this month, Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination hardly came up.
Ms. Heitkamp has always prided herself as one the few centrists in the Senate — a point she emphasized as she stood before Ms. Dunbar and about 30 others in a community center here in northeast North Dakota.
“I’m not bragging on myself, but we need more people in the middle like me who will call” nonsense, Ms. Heitkamp said, using a considerably stronger word than “nonsense.”
As she spoke to the crowd, a dump truck rumbled by outside, kicking up dust in its wake. The street had been ripped up as part of a project to replace Petersburg’s sewer system, an undertaking Ms. Heitkamp helped fund.
As she tries to fend off a challenge from Representative Kevin Cramer, North Dakota’s at-large Republican congressman, she is eager to promote her work on such local issues that are important to rural towns like this one.
“One of the things that I do every day when I wake up and I think about what my job is in Washington, D.C., is I think about rural America,” she said. “And I do that because I’m pretty sure that I’m one of the few people who do.”
One of seven children, Ms. Heitkamp, 62, grew up in a rural town even smaller than this one. She is well known to voters in North Dakota: Her long career has included stints as tax commissioner and attorney general as well as an unsuccessful run for governor in 2000 during which she learned she had breast cancer. She won her Senate seat six years ago by about 3,000 votes.
But Mr. Trump beat Hillary Clinton in North Dakota by 36 percentage points, something not lost on Republicans. Both Mr. Cramer’s campaign and the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm have released ads showing old footage of Ms. Heitkamp declaring her support for Mrs. Clinton.
In the Senate, Ms. Heitkamp is no leader of the resistance. She has voted for most of Mr. Trump’s cabinet nominees, and when asked about abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a movement that some Democratic lawmakers have embraced, she rolled her eyes and said it was “crazy town.”
This spring, Ms. Heitkamp claimed a prime spot at the White House bill-signing ceremony for a bipartisan banking measure that was castigated by the Senate’s leading liberals, and last year, she rode on Air Force One to North Dakota and even joined the president on stage at an event in the state (“Good woman,” Mr. Trump told the crowd).
But that proximity to Mr. Trump only goes so far. She stuck with her fellow Democrats and voted against last year’s attempt at repealing the Affordable Care Act, which failed, as well as the Republican tax overhaul.
In his campaign, Mr. Cramer, 57, has emphasized his allegiance to Mr. Trump, comparing voting against the president’s agenda to cheating on a spouse. Like Ms. Heitkamp, he was elected to Congress in 2012, providing for a tidy comparison of their records.
“We all like Heidi,” he concedes in one of his ads, “but she’s wrong to oppose this tax cut.”
In an interview, Mr. Cramer predicted that Ms. Heitkamp would vote in favor of Judge Kavanaugh. It would be “nearly fatal, if not fatal,” if she did not, he said.
Mr. Cramer said he welcomed a comparison of the votes the two of them have cast over the past six years.
“She’s always touting her independence,” Mr. Cramer said. “The problem is, what is it she’s independent of? Well, what she’s trying to be independent of is her party. I don’t have to apologize for my political affiliations — including the president of the United States.”
In an interview conducted at a Dairy Queen while she enjoyed a chocolate ice cream cone, Ms. Heitkamp argued that people in the state want senators who use their own judgment.
“He literally is gluing himself to this president, saying, ‘If you like the president, then vote for me,’” Ms. Heitkamp said of Mr. Cramer during a visit to Langdon, not far from the border with Canada, in a part of the state filled with yellow flowering fields of canola.
“I’m saying, look, I like the president; sometimes the president does things that I really agree on,” she continued. “But there’s a lot of times, like on this tariffs and trade, I disagree.”
Ms. Heitkamp had just finished holding a lengthy session with anxious farmers who packed into a small room at the local library. She has been an outspoken critic of the tariffs imposed by the Trump administration, which she sees as imperiling North Dakota’s agricultural industry.
The issue of trade could serve as a lifeline to Ms. Heitkamp. The Trump presidency has been a whirlwind of headlines in which one controversy is quickly overtaken by the next, but the trade war could prove more enduring to North Dakota voters.
“I think that the critical issue is going to be what the price of soybeans is in the early morning farm reports on Election Day,” said Mike Jacobs, the former editor and publisher of The Grand Forks Herald, in North Dakota’s third-largest city.
“That’s the critical danger in North Dakota for Kevin Cramer,” he continued, “because he’s trying to present this as a bargaining tactic, and bargaining is not something that farmers are interested in with their incomes. They want certainty.”
While Mr. Cramer faces questions over trade, the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh is putting a spotlight on Ms. Heitkamp.
Ms. Dunbar, the social worker, was willing to give Ms. Heitkamp a pass on the nomination, but other supporters may not be so accommodating. In the city of Devils Lake, Fran Coulthart sat at a picnic table at a rib festival and took a harder line.
“I’d rather see her stand up and say no,” said Ms. Coulthart, 65, a retired farmer.
Ms. Heitkamp said she would meet with Judge Kavanaugh and “try and get a sense of who he is as a person, because you can never know how people are going to decide cases, in my opinion.” But she appeared unbothered: “I get pressure like this all the time.”
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