Senate Democrats’ already-narrow path to a majority just got considerably narrower. NBC News projects Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer the winner in his challenge to Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota. With roughly half of the precincts reporting, Cramer leads the incumbent by 18 points, 59 percent to 41 percent.
Heitkamp began the cycle on the short list of the most vulnerable senators, and things only got worse for her from there. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his GOP friends managed to persuade Cramer, who’s been the state’s lone congressman since 2013, to enter the race despite his initial reluctance. The Republican then made his allegiance to the president a centerpiece of his campaign in a state Trump won by a whopping 36 percentage points in 2016. Another factor working against Heitkamp: After she won her first term by fewer than 3,000 votes and with strong Native American support, state Republicans passed a voter-ID law plainly targeting Native Americans’ right to vote.
Like many of her fellow red-state Democrats, Heitkamp found some early success playing up her bipartisan bona fides, and she even briefly got some help from the president in doing so. But any hope she had of keeping the focus local evaporated in June when Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the Supreme Court. The very next day, Trump was on stage in Fargo using his not-yet-announced SCOTUS pick as a weapon against Heitkamp.
It’s an oversimplification, however, to say that Heitkamp’s high-profile vote against Kavanaugh cost her re-election. She led in just one major poll all year—way back in February—and she appeared to be losing ground even before the final confirmation vote. Still, Heitkamp’s decision to publicly believe Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation against Kavanaugh made for an unmistakable contrast with Cramer, who was so steadfast in his defense of Trump’s nominee that at one point he suggested Kavanaugh should be seated on the high court regardless of whether he sexually assaulted Ford back when the two were in high school. Part of Cramer’s stated rationale: The alleged assault “never went anywhere.”
Heitkamp joins Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly on the list of Senate incumbents to fall this year, and they could have company before the night is over. Together, their losses also mean that Democrats will now need to flip at least four GOP seats from red to blue to gain a 51-seat majority in the upper chamber. As I’ve explained, the difference between the party picking up two seats and picking up three seats is bigger than you would think. The difference between three and four is downright massive.