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Heidi Heitkamp talks to North Dakotans about her no vote on Kavanaugh: ‘I just hope I have the chance to explain why’

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) greets constituents.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) greets constituents. (Bruce Crummy/Associated Press)
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RUTLAND, N.D. — As Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) hustled down the main drag in Sunday’s Uffda Day parade, Elizabeth Ritter, a middle-aged woman in a pink coat and matching hat, stepped off the curb, pulled the lawmaker close and spoke into her ear, carving out a private moment amid the blaring music and cheers.

“I said I was proud of her and God bless her,” Ritter said later. “We all should be really proud of her. This was a historic vote, and everybody knows how difficult it was, and she did the right thing. John Kennedy talked about profiles in courage — she is a profile in courage.”

Only 24 hours earlier, Heitkamp had cast the most consequential vote of her political career.

After weeks of angry disputes stemming from the allegations of sexual misconduct against Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh, senators at both ends of the political spectrum have watched the nomination vote shake up their campaigns.

The Senate confirmed Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court 50-48 on Oct. 6. (Video: U.S. Senate)

Heitkamp — perhaps the most threatened Democratic senator even before the controversy — has fallen behind her opponent, Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), in recent polling in her red state, where surveys showed substantial support for Kavanaugh.

But last week, the senator announced that she would vote against the nominee. And on Saturday, she did so.

One day after the vote, she was back among North Dakotans, wearing a dark sweatshirt against the chill as she led a group of about 100 supporters during the parade for Uffda Day, a Scandinavian heritage festival held each year in this town of fewer than 200 residents.

“I knew this was going to be a difficult vote,” she said in an interview. “I just hope I have the chance to explain why.”

Heitkamp said her concerns about Kavanaugh’s temperament on the bench, as well as her own family’s experience with sexual assault, pushed her to a final decision that went beyond the usual political calculus.

“The smart political vote would have been a yes vote,” she said.

Since Heitkamp announced her decision, television screens across the state have been blitzed with a commercial from the senator’s campaign explaining why she voted as she did. In her ad, Heitkamp sought to make sure North Dakotans understood that her vote was not partisan, reminding them of her support last year for President Trump’s first court nominee, Neil M. Gorsuch.

On Sunday, standing before a huge tractor emblazoned with her name, Heitkamp delivered a similar pitch to a local television camera while a parade organizer tried to get the event started.

“If you’re going to miss the parade, I’ll have to go get the Republicans!” a parade organizer shouted to Heitkamp’s troops, waving his hands to where Cramer’s supporters had gathered farther down the route.

“There’s plenty here,” a passerby joked. But all of those interviewed expressed support for Heitkamp, at least on Sunday.

For anyone outside the tight circle of North Dakota politics, Uffda Day would seem an odd campaign stop in the final weeks of a close election.

The smell of grilling brats spiked the air as vendors sold fresh pumpkins, fur hats and Swedish and Norwegian traditional foods. A John Deere tractor pulled children around in a makeshift train while more youngsters jumped inside a bounce house. Polished classic cars lined the block.

But small-town festivals are a key piece of retail politics for North Dakotans. At Uffda Day, politicians — from county commissioners riding four-wheelers to Heitkamp and Cramer — shook hands with bystanders.

The crowd along Rutland’s main street exploded in cheers as Heitkamp came past and began greeting voters.

“Thank you!” one woman screamed. “Heidi!” shouted another.

Between handshakes, Heitkamp explained that Kavanaugh’s appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee influenced her decision.

“I was deeply disturbed by the lack of judicial temperament and the lack of impartiality,” she said of Kavanaugh, whose angry defense had included sharp denunciations of Democrats and accusations that opponents were seeking revenge on behalf of Bill and Hillary Clinton. (Kavanaugh served under Kenneth Starr, who investigated Bill Clinton during his presidency.)

A key moment, Heitkamp said, was watching the nominee’s testy exchange with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) about the nominee’s drinking habits. Asked whether he had experienced any blackouts in his youth, Kavanaugh turned the question back on Klobuchar, moments after she had described her father’s drinking problems.

“When he was put in a tough spot and asked a tough question, his response was to attack and double down,” Heitkamp said.

Heitkamp compared Kavanaugh’s appearance unfavorably against Gorsuch’s.

“I did not see the same level” of judicial temperament for the Supreme Court with Kavanaugh, she said.

Heitkamp said she did not decide how to vote until she saw the FBI report investigating the assault claims last week. The available information left too many questions unanswered about the nominee’s behavior, she said.

As she weighed whether to believe Kavanaugh’s accuser Christine Blasey Ford, Heitkamp said she was also thinking of her own mother’s experience.

“My mother was a victim,” she told The Washington Post, her eyes filling with tears. “There’s a lot of people who have been victims in this country. My mother was one, and I think all five of us girls were a lot stronger because she raised us to be stronger as a result.”

Heitkamp said she thought the Kavanaugh decision was among the toughest of her political career. It also has changed the government, she said.

“We have a highly partisan executive branch; we have a highly partisan legislative branch,” she said. “We now have injected that partisanship into the judicial branch.”