Sen. Heidi Heitkamp was ready to vote ‘yes’ on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Having been just one of three Democratic senators to vote to confirm President Donald Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, Heitkamp had already instructed her staff to begin drafting a statement explaining why she thought Kavanaugh deserved her vote as well. Then Christine Blasey Ford came forward and accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were both in high school.
“I was concerned about these allegations but willing to give him the benefit of the doubt,” the North Dakota senator told CNN in an interview.
Heitkamp is in the fight of her political life, trying to hold onto her seat in this red state where President Trump won by 36 percentage points. Her calling card is crossing party lines, especially when it comes to presidential appointments. Deciding to vote no for Kavanaugh was probably riskier for her than any other Democrat.
She watched Ford’s testimony. And then she watched Kavanaugh’s. And then she watched Kavanaugh’s again, but this time, with the sound off.
“It’s something I do,” she said, “We communicate not only with words, but with our body language and demeanor.”
“I saw somebody who was very angry, who was very nervous, and I saw rage that a lot of people said, ‘well of course you’re going to see rage he’s being falsely accused,’ but it is at all times you’re to acquit yourself with a demeanor that’s becoming of the court,” Heitkamp said.
With regard to his demeanor, Heitkamp said the final straw was the way Kavanaugh went after her Democratic colleague from Minnesota, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, when he asked her if she had ever blacked out drunk after she had asked him the same question.
“When someone shows you who they are, believe them,” Heitkamp said.
It was also Heitkamp’s own experience as an attorney that changed her mind. Having dealt with victims of sexual assault, she said she instinctively believed Ford.
“I certainly think I have expertise beyond a number of people within the United States Senate and that expertise is that I have sat across the desk with victims people I’ve believed when they told me their story, and I had to say,’I believe you but these cases can’t be proved beyond a reasonable doubt so we can’t proceed with the prosecution.’ And when you’ve done that, you know for a victim, the most important thing you can say is ‘I believe you’ if you do, and I think it really came down to that I believed her,” Heitkamp recalled.
And there was something even more personal that she never talked about publicly until Sunday, when she heard that her Republican challenger Kevin Cramer told the New York Times’ Jonathan Martin, that women in his family, including his mother, “cannot understand this movement toward victimization. They are pioneers of the prairie. These are tough people whose grandparents were tough and great-grandparents were tough.”
Outraged, Heitkamp revealed that her own mother was a victim of sexual assault as a teenager. Later, she told CNN Cramer should be grateful that the women in his life were never assaulted.
“People in my life have, including my mother, and to suggest she’s not strong because she’s a victim was like a trigger for me. I just said she made us strong because she said don’t ever let this happen, fight for your rights, don’t … this was a life-changing experience for her and she made us stronger because of it,” said Heitkamp.
At an Oktoberfest event at Schmidt’s Shop in Wyndmere, near where she grew up, Heitkamp was emotional in admitting it was a “tough week.”
“The political rhetoric is you can’t vote that way if you expect to come back. I tell people Ray and Doreen Heitkamp didn’t raise me to vote a certain way so that I could win. They raised me to vote the right way,” she said.
The room gave her a standing ovation. But Heitkamp is well aware that elsewhere in the state, where support for Trump is strong, the voters are hardly applauding her choice.
Bridget Nolan contributed to this report.