Heitkamp’s Kavanaugh Vote Didn’t Cost Her the Election. But It Makes Her Loss Even More Painful.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp speaks into a microphone.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota lost her re-election campaign Tuesday night.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Heidi Heitkamp didn’t stand a chance. The North Dakota senator was a Democrat in a state that went to Donald Trump by a margin of more than 35 points. She’d won her seat in 2012 by just 3,000 votes, lifted to victory in large part by the Native American population a since-passed voter ID law was meant to disenfranchise. Only one poll this year had her leading her opponent, Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer. It was in February.

Still, her loss hurts for women who’ve spent the past couple of years watching avatars for their sexual traumas get picked apart, mocked, and dismissed on the national stage. Despite her lag in the polls and her state’s support for accused sexual assailant and then–Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, she voted against his confirmation. A yes vote might have shored up support among North Dakota centrists, or it might have eroded the strong base she’s built among progressives and Native Americans who love her for her work to protect Native survivors of sexual assault. No one can say for sure. But the safer option for a blue politician in a deep-red state would have been to do as the handily re-elected Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia did: Turn her back on her party, her morals, and the dignity of the Supreme Court to prove her chops as a centrist unbeholden to any party line.

Instead, Heitkamp gave an eloquent statement in support of Christine Blasey Ford, connecting Ford’s story to those of constituents who’d told Heitkamp about their experiences with sexual violence. (Her nonconsensual naming of some of those constituents in an ad was the most notable screw-up of her campaign.) She recognized that the moment was about much more than Kavanaugh and Ford. It was about the systems of power that condone or minimize abuse of women while protecting and elevating the men who abuse them. Some of Heitkamp’s most devoted constituents are the Native American women who’ve borne the brunt of those systems: Until Heitkamp helped pass a 2013 version of the Violence Against Women Act that gave tribes the right to prosecute non-Native perpetrators of domestic violence on their reservations, women on reservations had no recourse against their abusers. She’d pushed for a similar provision as North Dakota attorney general. Honoring those survivors in what Heitkamp must have known was one of her final acts as a U.S. senator amounted to one of the week’s precious few moments of integrity and grace in the face of spite.

Cramer seized the moment from the opposite end, making his campaign against Heitkamp resemble a Trump-Clinton matchup in miniature: a man who thinks sexual assault is no big deal, versus a centrist Democrat who made her name defending women’s rights. When Heitkamp was working on those protections for Native women in 2013, Cramer addressed the bill by saying to a sexual violence survivor, “As a non-Native man, I do not feel secure stepping onto the reservation now.” As for Kavanaugh and his alleged sexual assault, Cramer asked, “Even if it’s all true, does it disqualify him?” After all, he said, “Nothing evidently happened in it all, even by [Ford’s] own accusation. Again, it was supposedly an attempt or something that never went anywhere.” He responded to Heitkamp’s “no” vote on Kavanaugh by saying of his wife, daughters, and mother, “They cannot understand this movement toward victimization.”

Now Kavanaugh is on the Supreme Court. Cramer, the guy who thought committing sexual assault shouldn’t bar someone from that highest judicial body, is headed to the Senate, elected by a comfortable margin of about 10 points. Part of his job will be voting on future judicial appointees. Things that once seemed like deal-breakers for politicians and judicial nominees—credible (or, at least, embarrassing) sexual-assault allegations, defending sexual assault as a fine thing for a future justice to do—are now part of their appeal. Cramer’s win feels a little bit like Trump’s did: a reminder that American voters don’t just tolerate misogyny—they reward it.

It would be wrong to interpret Heitkamp’s vote against Kavanaugh as political suicide, as many pundits did at the time. The Washington Post ran a whole piece wondering “Why Is Heidi Heitkamp Voting Against Kavanaugh?,” attempting to project political motivations (“she sees an opening to make her Republican opponent look bad”) onto what may very well have been a moral decision. She was never going to win. Even the $12.5 million dollars in last-minute donations she raked in after standing against Kavanaugh, nearly as much as her pull from the entirety of her term, wasn’t enough to save her in such a small state with such a committedly conservative electorate. Heitkamp could have easily aligned herself with the Susan Collinses of the nation: centrist white women who made much of their commitment to due process for the accused (if not the accuser) and who were positively incensed by the lack of decorum Democrats offered the honorable judge. Instead, Heitkamp set an example for legislators who’d rather follow principles than bow to power. Tuesday’s inevitable win for Cramer was no punishment for her vote. It merely revealed why votes like hers are necessary.