FARGO, N.D. (Reuters) - Heidi Heitkamp has faced seemingly unwinnable odds before. In the 1990s, as a state attorney general, she stared down the tobacco industry, leading efforts to broker a multi-billion dollar settlement. In the 2000s, she beat back breast cancer.
But for the folksy, 62-year-old Democratic North Dakota senator, running for re-election in a largely rural, conservative state that strongly backed Donald Trump for president in 2016, the partisan war over Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court presents a seemingly intractable dilemma.
Five weeks before the Nov. 6 elections, her decision on Trump’s pick could come at her peril - whether she votes yes or no.
If Heitkamp, one of the most vulnerable Democrats in this year’s congressional midterm elections, rejects Kavanaugh, as she has hinted, she risks alienating conservative voters including independent and Democratic-leaning women who support Kavanaugh in a state Trump carried by 36 points in the 2016 presidential election.
A “yes” vote, however, might provoke a backlash among her core supporters that could depress Democratic turnout in her bid for a second term.
“Her Kavanaugh vote is a real risk for her,” said Kathy Burns, 47, a conservative who has followed the dramatic confirmation hearings and likes Heitkamp but is undecided about who to back in November. She said she is unsure whether to believe Kavanaugh or Christine Blasey Ford, who says he sexually assaulted her when they were high school students in 1982. Kavanaugh has denied the allegations.
“A lot of people like Kavanaugh and Trump,” she added.
It is yet another dilemma for Democrats grappling with an already narrow path to win the Senate from Republicans next month.
While the #MeToo movement and anger over Trump have energized many women to engage in politics this year, the debate over Kavanaugh is more divisive in conservative swaths of the country. In North Dakota and other states where Trump won by large margins and remains popular, many women are skeptical of the sexual assault accusations against him and could punish incumbents who try to derail his confirmation.
For a Democratic Party that has gained ground nationally, North Dakota illustrates the limits of the “Blue Wave” - and potentially the limits of the #MeToo movement that has empowered women to speak out against sexual misconduct.
“If Heidi Heitkamp votes no, I think it’s really going to hurt her here,” said Mary Fox, 53, a Trump voter shopping at a Target store in downtown Fargo, the state’s most populous city.
Fox’s opinion was echoed in interviews with a dozen women voters in Fargo and in several recent polls that found a majority of voters across the state support Kavanaugh.
One survey, conducted by the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies after Kavanaugh and Ford each presented their side in highly emotional hearings in Washington last week, found that 56 percent of North Dakota voters supported Kavanaugh’s confirmation compared to 26 percent who opposed it. Among women voters, 50 percent wanted to see him on the Supreme Court and 29 percent said he should be rejected.
Opposition to Kavanaugh is much stronger nationally. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Sunday found 41 percent of U.S. adults opposed Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court.
Heitkamp’s campaign did not respond to Reuters’ requests for an interview.
Heitkamp, a lawyer and businesswoman with a long history in North Dakota politics, has described the decision as difficult and welcomed the one-week investigation the FBI is conducting into the allegations before the full Senate votes on Kavanaugh’s nomination.
Her campaign criticized her Republican opponent, U.S. Representative Kevin Cramer, for his quick endorsement of Trump’s nominee.
“North Dakotans know they can count on Heidi for independent leadership. She puts politics aside and responsibly vets and considers candidates to serve on the highest court in our land,” Julia Krieger, Heitkamp’s campaign communications director, said in a statement.
The two candidates are scheduled to meet for their first debate on Friday.
Cramer, a three-term congressman who has led the incumbent in polls by as many as 10 percentage points, has dismissed Ford’s accusations as “absurd.” In a telephone interview on Monday, he said Heitkamp “has to vote for Kavanaugh.”
“At least I have an opinion about this,” he said. “She’s tried to play this coy thing. Brett Kavanaugh is so solidly right for North Dakota. It’s an identity dilemma she has in North Dakota.”
Kavanaugh’s nomination drama comes at a difficult time for Heitkamp.
She has been targeted by ads and money from outside groups supporting Kavanaugh, including a TV and digital ad released on Tuesday by the Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative advocacy group pressuring Democrats in Republican states to confirm Kavanaugh.
Last week, about 20 people demonstrated outside her campaign office in Fargo demanding she vote no, Krieger said.
Tyler Axness, a former Democratic state senator who now hosts a daily radio talk show, said voters calling in had been “jolted” by the allegations against Kavanaugh and were split on the issue.
The accusations might give Heitkamp enough political cover to vote no, he said. But, he added, “it’s going to be on her to explain why she did that.”
That’s a view shared by Diane Hartman, 69, a voter who describes herself as an independent and backs Heitkamp. She said Kavanaugh’s emotional and at times angry demeanor during his testimony could make it easier for Heitkamp to reject him. “If she votes yes, she will lose a lot of Democrats,” said Hartman.
Heitkamp was one of three Democratic senators who voted to confirm Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, last year. The two others also face tough election fights this year.
Joe Manchin of West Virginia has not said how he will vote. Joe Donnelly of Indiana said he will vote against Kavanaugh. A Donnelly campaign aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said one factor in Donnelly’s decision was concerns he had about Kavanaugh’s temperament after his testimony last week.
Female voters in North Dakota said their senator faced a tricky task.
Barb Nelson, 69, a retiree who called herself an independent, said she was unimpressed with Kavanaugh and planned to vote for Heitkamp but had many friends who would be angered if the senator voted against the nominee.
“North Dakota is pretty Republican. It’s a very difficult decision for her.”
Democrats sought to spin the issue in Heitkamp’s favor with a new digital ad criticizing Cramer for saying in a radio interview that Kavanaugh and Ford were teenagers at the time of the alleged assault, and “it was supposedly an attempt or something that never went anywhere.”
The ad features women listening to Cramer’s remarks and reacting to them. A woman at the end of the ad says: “He doesn’t treat everyone the same.”
Bo Wood, a political science professor at the University of North Dakota, said he believes Heitkamp ultimately will reject Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court. “Her core supporters will demand she votes against Kavanaugh,” Wood said.
Reporting by Tim Reid; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Lisa Shumaker