Finally: Trump embraces ND Republican, turns rhetoric on Heitkamp

It took a while, but the White House has finally focused on a winnable Senate election in North Dakota. After recruiting Rep. Kevin Cramer to run against incumbent Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp this fall, Donald Trump appeared to be more interested in promoting Heitkamp than Cramer. It got to the point this month that Cramer openly speculated that Trump was protecting Heitkamp.

Well, that’s now settled. “Heidi will vote no for any pick we make for the Supreme Court,” Trump declared, urging rally attendants in Fargo to vote for Cramer instead:

“We must elect more Republicans, we have to do that,” the president said Wednesday night.

The president has not voiced his top contenders to replace Kennedy since the retirement announcement, but in November the White House released a list of 25 possible names in the case of a vacancy.

“We have to pick a great one,” Mr. Trump said Wednesday night. “We have to pick one that’s going to be there for 40 years, 45 years.”

The president said Heitkamp would simply vote as she is told — unless, perhaps, political pressure forces her to vote for Mr. Trump’s nominee. Heitkamp did vote to support Trump-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch last year.

Trump went farther than that in attacking Heitkamp, calling her a “liberal Democrat” who blindly follows “Chuck and Nancy.” ABC felt compelled to offer a fact check on Trump’s remarks:

President Donald Trump has urged North Dakota voters to defeat “liberal Democrat” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, although she is a moderate who strays at times from Democratic positions. …

“When Heidi ran for office, she promised to be an independent vote for the people of North Dakota,” Trump said to an arena packed with thousands of cheering supporters in Fargo. “Instead, she went to Washington and immediately joined Chuck … and Nancy,” a reference to Democratic congressional leaders Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi.

But Heitkamp is considered a moderate and one of the least reliably partisan Democratic votes in the Senate. She’s largely backed the oil-rich state’s corporate interests on energy and has opposed some restrictions on guns. She voted to confirm 21 of Trump’s 26 Cabinet-level nominations.

The president, however, noted Heitkamp’s votes against tax cuts he signed into law in December as well as the GOP’s long-sought goal to undo the health care program enacted by President Barack Obama.

All of this is true, which is why Cramer began to smell a rat this month when Trump kept playing nice with Heitkamp. They even allowed her into a bill-signing ceremony that helped burnish her Trump-friendly credentials, which is what caused the blow-up with Cramer. When Trump didn’t include North Dakota in his campaign swing in Duluth earlier this month, it got to the point where Republicans in the state were scratching their heads:

Right now, with Democrats heavily invested in their Heidi-is-pro-Trump narrative, would be the perfect time for Trump himself to descend on the race and rile up the Republican base for Cramer. Only, that doesn’t seem to be in the works any time soon.

I reached out to the Cramer campaign for an update. “What I know at this point is we do not have a schedule for a Trump visit,” Tim Rasmussen, campaign spokesman, told me. “We hope he’s going to come. We have every indication that he will, but as of right now I’m not aware of a specific date in time.”

Maybe all is well behind the scenes. Maybe there’s no fire behind all this smoke.

But, barring some announcement for a North Dakota visit shortly, this sure looks like a snub.

Trump appears to have removed that impression with a full-throated attack on Heitkamp. Heitkamp herself doesn’t appear too concerned about it, or at least not publicly:

In regards to the president’s rally endorsing U.S. House Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and his run for Senate, Heitkamp said she “didn’t even watch the speech.”

“I think political speeches are political speeches,” she said in a phone interview after the Fargo rally Wednesday, June 28. “And you can always expect a little bit of hyperbole.”

At the moment, her campaign is focused more on attacking Trump on his trade policies anyway, so the “pro-Trump narrative” noted by Rob Port has been eclipsed for now. That might make it more of a clear choice in the Senate race this fall, and it’s a near-certainty that the Supreme Court fight might eclipse all of these other considerations in a deep-red state like North Dakota. All it took was for Trump to draw a line, which seemed a loooooong time coming. With the upcoming confirmation fight over Anthony Kennedy’s successor, Trump seems to have realized that a Republican is more valuable than a Democrat in the Senate, no matter how friendly the latter might be.