Just a few days ago, California Rep. Maxine Waters and Supreme Court Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Neil Gorsuch did not feature heavily in Donald Trump’s midterm campaign spiel. But Wednesday night, the president made clear that has changed in a major way.
Air Force One touched down in Fargo, North Dakota, just hours after Kennedy informed Trump during a White House meeting of his decision to retire next month after three decades on the high court. And the president wasted no time in painting North Dakota’s junior senator, Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, as an automatic “no” vote on any nominee he picks to replace the “swing vote” justice.
“Heidi will vote ‘no’ on any pick we make,” Trump said. “She’ll be told to.”
He also said the coming high court vacancy makes control of the Senate one of the biggest political issues in some time.
Trump left out the part about Heitkamp voting for his first Supreme Court nominee, Gorsuch. But his remarks, especially his attempts to tie Heitkamp to a Democratic effort to oppose any pick he sends to the Senate, show Trump believes the coming court tussle is a winning message for his party.
“He felt confident in me to make the right choice and carry on his great legacy. That’s why he did it,” Trump said of Kennedy’s decision to retire during his presidency. The commander in chief said he is looking for a nominee who can serve for “45 years” and has a “great intellect.”
Watch: Decoding the High Court Confirmation Process — 2 Things Trump Needs to Worry About
The president often gives only brief remarks about the GOP candidate for whom he is in town to support and about the Democrat he is there to knock down a peg. That was not the case in North Dakota, where Heitkamp is in a tight race with the state’s at-large congressman, Republican Kevin Cramer.
Trump called Cramer a “special person” and a “good guy” while endorsing his Senate bid. He labeled Heitkamp a “liberal” and tried to tie her to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
“She went to Washington and immediately joined Chuck … and Nancy,” Trump said.
Heitkamp was squarely in the president’s sights throughout Wednesday’s rally. He criticized her for voting against Republican health care and tax legislation, and evoked loud boos when he said she voted against a bill “to stop late-term abortions.” He also criticized her support for so-called sanctuary cities and her opposition to his ban on individuals from several majority-Muslim countries entering the United States.
“You need a senator who doesn’t just talk like they’re from North Dakota, but votes like they’re from North Dakota,” Trump told the audience. “A vote for any Democrat is a vote for Schumer, Pelosi and Maxine — Maxine, she’s a beauty.”
Trump said Heitkamp “might throw us some quickie votes before the election,” but predicted she will begin “voting party line” the day after the November election.
Waters is now a central part of the president’s campaign message, and he accused her of urging Democrats to “assault” his White House aides and Cabinet officials if they encounter them in public. That is not entirely correct, however. The California congresswoman told people to “push back on them,” but her remarks drew scorn from Republicans and Democrats alike.
“Now they have a new leader. Who’s the new leader? … Maxine Waters,” Trump said. “Please keep Maxine … on the air as the mouthpiece of your party.”
During brief remarks, Cramer bathed the president in praise, especially the GOP tax overhaul he signed into law. He also told Trump he would “be with you 100 percent of the time.”
In a preview of the coming U.S. Supreme Court nomination debate, Cramer — to loud applause — thanked Trump for “standing for life.”
Charles Geyh, a professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, said he expects the coming confirmation fight will be “ramped up” and defined by “bare-knuckle politics” rather than “deliberation, consensus, and compromise.”
“The net effect is that between now and the midterm elections, Senate Democrats are unlikely to have any meaningful influence,” Geyh said. “I would be surprised if the president sees fit to seek their advice.”
Mike Murphy, a GOP strategist, said having a Supreme Court retirement and confirmation in a midterm election year will make a “red-hot” election year even hotter — especially because a fifth consistently liberal justice could bring hot-button issues like abortion and gay rights onto the court’s docket.
“My guess is it will heat up everybody. Republicans and conservatives will get extra excited. Democrats and liberals will get extra excited,” he told MSNBC. “I think the abortion issue … will help the Republicans in some Southern states, it’ll hurt them in others. This ramps the whole intensity of the election up.”