The Slatest

Heidi Heitkamp Is Barely Talking About Brett Kavanaugh. Her GOP Opponent Is Saying Too Much.

Donald Trump looks on as Kevin Cramer speaks at a June rally in Fargo, North Dakota.
Donald Trump looks on as Kevin Cramer speaks at a June rally in Fargo, North Dakota.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Even in a Republican Party that has shown disdain for Brett Kavanaugh’s accusers, U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer stands out for the degree to which he has lashed out at the women in his defense of Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.

Cramer, who is running against Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, first voiced heavy skepticism of Christine Blasey Ford’s story of attempted rape after she went public with it. Soon after, he called her claim “absurd” since the alleged assault “never went anywhere” and because both Ford and Kavanaugh “were drunk” at the time. (Reminder: “I thought he might inadvertently kill me,” Ford told the Washington Post. “He was trying to attack me and remove my clothing.”) Then, remarkably, Cramer leaned in further—even though a second accuser, Deborah Ramirez, had come forward to accuse Kavanaugh of thrusting his penis in her face at a drunken dorm party at Yale. (“I remember a penis being in front of my face,” Ramirez told the New Yorker. “I knew that’s not what I wanted, even in that state of mind.”)

“Even if it’s all true, does it disqualify him?” Cramer told a local TV station in North Dakota on Monday, in reference to Ford’s specific allegation. “It certainly means that he did something really bad 36 years ago, but does it disqualify him from the Supreme Court? … It should never happen in our society but what if [there’s] 36 years of a record where there’s nothing like that again?”

And what about Ramirez? In Cramer’s version of reality, her claim is “far more suspicious even than the first one,” since she “is not even really sure what she saw.” Cramer’s campaign did not respond to a request from Slate on Wednesday for comment on the allegations of a third woman, Julie Swetnick, who says she witnessed Kavanaugh engage in repeated nonconsensual sexual conduct when she knew him during his high school years. He did, however, flesh out his argument slightly in a brief interview with Politico, explaining that while the assault wouldn’t be disqualifying, lying about it would. “If it’s proven to be true, the issue isn’t so much about the [events of] 36 years ago, but what’s more concerning to me is that he’s been lying about it.”

As illogical as Cramer’s comments are in the real world, they’re arguably just as illogical on the campaign trail. Kavanaugh’s confirmation, after all, was supposed to be a political weapon Cramer could use against Heitkamp in a state that went for Trump by 36 points two years ago. If Heitkamp votes against confirmation, she risks undercutting the bipartisan image she’s running on. But if she votes for confirmation, she’ll infuriate a significant slice of her liberal base. Heitkamp will have to confront that dilemma if and when the Senate votes on Kavanaugh’s nomination, but in the meantime Cramer’s remarks are giving her plenty of breathing room.

Consider how much Heitkamp has simply tried to remain neutral during the mini-cascade of Kavanaugh scandals. “This is a very serious allegation which should be thoroughly investigated, and it’s up to the Senate Judiciary Committee to do just that,” she declared after Ford went public more than a week ago. On Wednesday, after Swetnick’s allegations were made public, Heitkamp’s campaign spokeswoman, Julia Krieger, held the line: “She’s going to hear out both sides on this issue. Congressman Cramer has been pretty clear he’s made a judgment already; Senator Heitkamp hasn’t made one yet.” That’s the same type of wait-and-see stance we’ve seen from a few of the moderate Republican senators, including Arizona’s Jeff Flake and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski.

And while Heitkamp waits, her team is doing all it can to keep the spotlight squarely on her opponent. Wednesday’s campaign conference call featured several former members of North Dakota law enforcement criticizing Cramer for his comments. “When we have statements that diminish the seriousness of attempted sexual assault, my concern is it makes law enforcement’s job harder,” Tim Purdon, a former Obama-nominated U.S. Attorney in North Dakota, told reporters. “It makes victims less likely to come forward. … And it makes jurors more skeptical of these sorts of allegations.”

Then, unprompted, Purdon added: “This isn’t about a nominee—that isn’t what I’m here to talk about.” Heitkamp could say the same.