North Dakota Voters Have Outsized Say in Supreme Court Battle
FARGO, N. DAKOTA —
The clock is ticking on two contests with nationwide consequences and Senator Heidi Heitkampa Democrat in one of the most Republican states in the country is at the center of both.
Heitkamp must retain her seat to give her party a fighting chance to wrest control of the US Senate from Republicans, who currently hold a 51 to 49-seat majority.
But she will also face a tough decision shortly before the November election that will play a role in guiding voters' decisions at the polls and that will impact American life for decades: the confirmation of a new U.S. Supreme Court Justice.
Representing a state that voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by more than thirty percentage points in the 2016 presidential election, Heitkamp faces pressure from grassroots groups and individuals on both sides of the aisle. They're mobilizing to make their voices heard about the Supreme Court nominee, Federal Judge Brett Kavanaugh, and other issues during a mid-term election year.
Voters in North Dakota know the unusual concurrence of a close Senate race and a high-stakes Supreme Court confirmation process gives them this unique opportunity. Blue-collar workers and farmers struggling to make ends meet, fiscal conservatives outraged by excessive Federal spending, pro and anti-abortion proponents are all reaching out to candidates to make their feelings known.
Politicians aren't distant figureheads in North Dakota, one of the most sparsely populated states in the nation with 755,000 residents. North Dakota voters refer to their Senator simply as Heidi, greeting her without ceremony as she makes her way around a town park in Fargo on a recent humid summer night.
Heitkamp's opponent, Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer, chats up families just a few feet away. Heitkamp was considered for a job in Trump's cabinet but Cramer is the candidate the president has campaigned for during trips to Fargo this summer.
The race between Heitkamp and Cramer will likely be extremely close. North Dakota's Senate race israted as a toss-up by Cook Political report, an independent newsletter analyzing U.S. elections. A Real Clear Politics average of polls shows Cramer leading by half a point.
Voters will judge Heitkamp, 62, a lawyer and former businesswoman, not only on her record as a first-term Senator but also for her decision on Kavanaugh.
The prominent conservative judge could be the deciding vote on the U.S. Supreme Court on issues ranging from immigration to privacy rights to a possible challenge of Roe vs. Wade, the court's 1973 decision legalizing abortion. Trump's choice of Kavanaugh to succeed retired justice Anthony Kennedy also set up one of the closest pairings of a confirmation process and a nationwide election in modern U.S. history.
Heitkamp is one of three Democratic senators facing reelection who voted to confirm Trump's previous Supreme Court pick, Judge Neil Gorsuch. If any moderate Republican Senators choose not to vote for Kavanaugh, the support of Democrats like Heitkamp will be crucial for securing his nomination.
Heitkamp has not said how she will vote ahead of formal hearings that began in Washington on Tuesday (September 4.)
"This is not a judge who is going to tell me how he's going to vote, nor should he on any particular case but it is someone that we have to properly vet," she told VOA of her process evaluating Kavanaugh ahead of the U.S. Senate's confirmation process.
Her opponent told VOA one issue — abortion — did stand out, prompting North Dakota voters to push him into the Senate race.
"It fired up so many North Dakotans, that they came to me and saidyou have to reconsider," Cramer said of the debate over a 2013 North Dakota law banning abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected.
Cramer, 57, a one-time state public service commissioner, said the Supreme Court confirmation debate has intensified the Senate race.
"The SCOTUS [Supreme Court] decision has put an even greater national spotlight on North Dakota and caused a lot of North Dakotoans to look at their responsibility in light of the country," Cramer said.
Legal analysts say Kavanaugh's confirmation could tip the ideological balance of the court, leading to the first major challenge of Roe v. Wade.
"We're likely to see some greater limitation, perhaps even some erosion of the right to abortion because Kennedy notably voted with the liberal wing of the court relatively consistently to uphold the basic right to access abortion and there's a lot of concern that Justice Kavanaugh would not similarly vote in that vein," said Stacy Hawkins, Professor of Law at Rutgers Law School.
In North Dakota, 47% of all adults say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center study. Nationwide, the number of adults who say abortion should be legal in most cases is higher at 57%.
New life for long-running debate
"This state is certainly a red state," Mark Jorritsma, executive director of the Family Policy Alliance of North Dakota, told VOA. "It overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump and a whole bunch of people say we voted for Trump because of his ability to appoint someone who was pro-life, pro-family."
The Family Policy Alliance is one of several grassroots groups that has rallied in front of Heitkamp's Fargo office this summer, encouraging her to confirm Kavanaugh as well as educating their neighbors on her record.
"We have canvassers going out all over North Dakota," said Wendi Johnston, the eastern North Dakota field director for Susan B. Anthony List, a national network of 630,000 pro-life grassroots activists working to end abortion. "We have them reaching out to Senator Heitkamp and to telling them [voters] how she stands on life."
Students for Life, the nation's largest pro-life student organization, with groups in 1200 high schools and college campuses in all 50 states, has also mobilized a campaign to confirm Kavanaugh. Noah Maldonado, the northern regional coordinator for the group, said despite Heitkamp's previous voting record on abortion legislation, he thinks groups like his will have an impact on her decision.
"If you go into politics, it's your job to listen to your constituents," he said. "We have this system where if we elect someone as our leader, they have a duty to represent us well and there are lots of reasons to support Brett Kavanaugh even if someone has a 100% rating from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund."
The political arm of Planned Parenthood, a non-profit providing reproductive health care, gave Heitkamp the 100% rating for a voting record that consistently supports abortion rights. Heitkamp voted against a nationwide ban on abortions after 20 weeks earlier this year as well as voting down an attempt to restrict access to abortions in private health plans.
At Red River Clinic, the state's only facility for performing abortions, the consequences of Heitkamp's decision are clear.
"In North Dakota, we have a trigger ban which means that if Roe v. Wade were overturned, our attorney general could say that abortion is no longer constitutional," said Tammi Kromenaker, the director of Red River Clinic. "That would mean that the most vulnerable women in our staterural women, poor women, women of color would not have access to abortion."
Kromenaker noted that any challenge to Roe v. Wade would take at least a year to work through the courts. But she said pro-choice activists like herself are conducting their own letter-writing campaigns and events to educate voters on Heitkamp's decision.
"We don't want to say that women in North Dakota are going to have less rights than their sisters in neighboring states," she said. "So we are doing everything in our power to highlight the issue, to let voters know that they need to have their voices heard."
But Caitlin, a clinic employee who has worked to escort patients past protesters for ten years, said she realizes that election-year politics may play the greatest role in her Senator's decision.
"Heidi is what we have," she said. "Heidi is the best that we've got right now and the best that we can hope for going forward until we have a new, progressive generation in power in North Dakota."