When then-Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., made the agonizing decision nearly a year ago to vote against the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, she was well aware that she was probably sealing her doom in her uphill race for reelection.
“Clearly, the vote hurt me,” Heitkamp said Monday. “It energized the Republican base. It for them defined the Democratic Party as — what I heard over and over again — the word that basically was used to describe the Democrats was a ‘mob.’ “
She is not the only one who believes the fight that ensued over allegations that Kavanaugh committed sexual misconduct decades ago hurt Democrats in their quest to make gains in red-leaning parts of the country. In focus groups with conservative and moderate white working-class women, the organization Galvanize USA — which is trying to bring those voters back into the Democratic fold — was hearing much the same thing.
While many of the women said they welcomed the #MeToo movement, they worried about how their husbands and sons would fare in a climate in which “public accusations without proof or fair trial are enough to bring down powerful and successful men,” according to an analysis done by the Topos Partnership research organization.
It added: “The idea that a single transgression could permanently derail a man’s life is a deeply troubling thought to these women, whose families include husbands, sons, fathers, and nephews who may or may not have behaved blamelessly themselves.”
Here’s why this particular group of voters is important: As we head into the 2020 presidential campaign, white women without college degrees are the shakiest part of President Donald Trump’s base and a slice of the electorate that both parties see as a bellwether.
In 2016, exit polls and other postelection analyses indicated that Trump won this cohort by more than 20 percentage points, but its support for him has eroded dramatically since then. The latest Post-ABC News poll indicated the president was at best running even with his leading Democratic challengers among white women without college degrees. Only 42% said they approve of his handling of the presidency in the survey conducted during the first week of September, which marked a 12-point drop since July.
So no doubt another fight over now-Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh is one that Trump and the Republicans would love to have — and may get. According to a new book by two New York Times reporters, Max Stier, a Yale University classmate of Kavanaugh who now heads a well-respected, nonpartisan organization in Washington, D.C., claims to have seen Kavanaugh expose his penis to a woman at a drunken college party. That conforms with behavior in a separate incident described by another accuser, Deborah Ramirez. However, the woman Stier claims to remember as the victim in this incident has told friends she has no recollection of this happening.
There is plenty here that bears examination. Why did the FBI, when it was alerted to Stier’s recollection last fall, neglect to even interview him? And why did it fail to contact people whom Ramirez said could corroborate her account? Was this slipshod investigatory work by the FBI, or was it the product of political pressure the FBI was getting from congressional Republicans and higher-ups in the Trump administration?
What is not warranted at this point is the call for Kavanaugh’s impeachment by no fewer than four of the Democratic presidential contenders: Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California, former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro and former congressman Beto O’Rourke of Texas.
Heitkamp, for one, thinks Democrats should tread cautiously. “There’s no do-overs” on the Kavanaugh confirmation, she told me. “You can talk about impeachment. It’s not going to happen. So the important thing is to figure out what in the process went wrong and how do you fix that process.”
Those who favor pushing for Kavanaugh’s impeachment will argue that there is now more evidence that he committed perjury during his Senate testimony. But this would not come as a revelation to most Americans.
Polling around the time of the Senate confirmation vote showed that only 1 in 4 believed that Kavanaugh was being entirely honest about his actions. “The problem that he had with his veracity was a pivotal point for me,” said Heitkamp. “I think he lied repeatedly about small stuff, and you know, when people lie about small stuff, they’ll lie about big stuff. But I think for the democracy, it’s more important that you get to what was happening internally at the FBI.”
The Kavanaugh fight is over. But its unanswered questions need answers. We owe future justices — and ourselves — something better than a mystery.