Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) placed a risky re-election bet last week with two conflicting votes in the battle over Judge Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation to the Supreme Court.
Heitkamp is one of the most vulnerable of the 23 Democratic senators up for re-election in 2018.
Elected in 2012 with a one-percent margin of victory, Heitkamp will face a conservative electorate that gave the state’s three electoral college votes to Donald Trump in November with an overwhelming 64 percent to 28 percent win over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Heitkamp, who had been rumored to be under consideration as President Trump’s pick for Secretary of Agriculture, tried to place both sides against the middle in the two critical votes in the Gorsuch nomination fight.
On Thursday, she joined all 47 of her Democratic colleagues in opposing the Republican procedural move to limit the time the Democrats could filibuster Gorsuch’s nomination.
The move, which was the most important vote cast for any Senator in the confirmation battle, passed on a 52-48 party line vote. Had it failed, Republicans would have needed 60 votes to end the Democratic filibuster.
On Friday, Heitkamp joined two other Democratic senators up for re-election next year in states Trump won in November, Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) in voting yes to confirm Gorsuch.
Gorsuch was confirmed in a 55-44 vote in the Senate.
Heitkamp’s half-in, half-out strategy is in stark contrast to Sen. John Tester (D-MT), another Democratic senator up for re-election in a state President Trump won by a 56 percent to 36 percent margin, a resounding 20 percent victory, but not as overwhelming as his 36 percent margin in North Dakota.
Tester, the crew cut hardcore progressive from neighboring Montana, aggressively opposed Gorsuch’s nomination at every level, voting against both the procedural move to end the Democratic filibuster on Thursday and the actual confirmation of Gorsuch on Friday.
On the face of it, Tester’s strategy appears to be riskier than Heitkamp’s given Gorsuch’s sterling legal reputation, the strong recommendation by the American Bar Association, and the widespread praise he received for his measured responses given at his Senate confirmation hearings.
But Heitkamp’s double moves may have been too clever by half, and Tester appears to be betting that far left ideologues will come to his aid with such overwhelming financial and political support he can hold off the expected conservative counterattack in Montana.
The influential conservative/libertarian North Dakota blog SayAnything explains why Heitkamp’s strategy may backfire in North Dakota.
“North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp likes to make a big to-do over being a pragmatic sort of elected leader with an eye towards cooperative governing and bipartisanship. A cynic might say that carefully maintained facade is the work of a skilled politician who knows what sort of character she must play to get elected. And Heitkamp, the only Democrat elected on the statewide ballot in North Dakota since 2008, plays it well,” SayAnything Blog editor Rob Port notes:
During her first campaign for the Senate in 2012 then-candidate Heitkamp railed against the filibuster. On her still-active campaign website Heitkamp said there are “too many extreme politicians in Washington” who hold the country “hostage to advance their narrow political agenda.”
Then, during her first year in office in 2013, Heitkamp voted with the Democratic majority at the time to eliminate the judicial filibuster. Three Democratic lawmakers broke ranks with their party on the issue, but Heitkamp wasn’t one of them.
When Democrats lost their majority in the Senate, though, Heitkamp found an appreciation for the filibuster. She voted for a lot of them to obstruct Republican policies.
But, Port argues, what worked for Heitkamp in previous North Dakota elections may not work in 2018:
“Fast forward to today, Republicans held a vote to nuke the filibuster rule to clear the path for President Donald Trump’s first appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court,” Port wrote on Thursday:
Voting against the rule change to keep the filibuster in place? Senator Heidi Heitkamp. She has announced that she’s supporting Trump’s nominee, and she is voting that way so far, but she also voted to help Democrats keep the filibuster in place.
To be fair, Senator John Hoeven also flip flopped on judicial filibusters. He voted against change the rules back in 2013, and voted for changing the rules today.
But the politics around Heitkamp’s flip-flop are a little different. Whereas Senator Hoeven’s political appeal in our state is built on the fact that he’s exactly the sort of moderate Republican most voters want, Heitkamp is playing at being a Democrat who governs like a moderate Republican.
“Heitkamp told voters in 2012 that she was against the filibuster, and voted to end it when President Barack Obama was trying to push his judicial appointments through. But then when Republicans attained the majority she helped deploy filibusters to block their policy agenda, and now today voted against ending the filibuster for President Trump’s judicial appointment,” Port adds.
“It seems as though Heitkamp’s stance on the filibuster has far less to do with principle than it does partisan politics,” Port concludes.
That approach may work in blue states like New York and California. But in a very red state like North Dakota, it will be a much harder sell for Heitkamp in 2018.