WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is taking the Washington debate over his Supreme Court nominee to the homes of two red-state Senate Democrats this week, elevating Judge Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation as a political litmus test for voters.
Trump's strategy aims to turn the screws on the lawmakers, Jon Tester of Montana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, who find themselves caught between Senate leaders and progressive donors who are fighting Kavanaugh's confirmation, and their states' more conservative electorate, which is more broadly supportive of Trump's pick.
Neither senator has laid down a clear marker on how he or she will vote on Kavanaugh's confirmation, which Senate Republican leaders hope to bring to a vote before the full chamber later this month - just weeks before the general election.
Trump is holding a rally in Billings, Montana, on Thursday night, and then attending fundraisers in Fargo, North Dakota, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on Friday.
White House officials contend the Supreme Court was a powerful motivator for Republican base voters in 2016, when Trump won the White House, and they're seeking to capitalize on Kavanaugh's confirmation to help overcome an enthusiasm gap with Democrats. Likewise, a vote for Kavanaugh by either Tester or Heitkamp could frustrate their Democratic base eager for a more confrontational approach to the Trump administration.
"It's a real pickle," said GOP strategist Josh Holmes.
"There is no question that all of these red-state Democrats would prefer to have an extremely quiet experience when it comes to the consideration of Kavanaugh," he said. "They don't want to upset leadership and the liberal base that's funding their campaigns, but the voters who control their fate are overwhelmingly in favor of Kavanaugh."
Democrats question whether the Kavanaugh vote will resonate in the race to unseat Tester, the Big Sandy farmer who has emphasized his independence and willingness to cross the partisan aisle to work with the president, who carried Montana by 20 percentage points two years ago.
"It's not like you're standing in the grocery store line and people are talking about the Kavanaugh confirmation. It's pretty inside baseball for folks," said Barrett Kaiser, a Montana-based Democratic strategist who advised former Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. Kaiser said Tester had demonstrated a "proven bipartisan record of working with this administration when it helps Montana and oppose them when it doesn't."
Republicans last year assailed Tester for his vote against the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, Trump's nominee to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Tester said Gorsuch would "stand between women and her health care" and not protect personal privacy.
He's yet to make a commitment on Kavanaugh or even to meet with the nominee. Tester initially said he wanted to meet with Kavanaugh and blamed the lack of a meeting on a White House cancellation. He retracted that claim Saturday when his spokeswoman told the Billings Gazette newspaper that the Democrat "misspoke" and that the White House had pushed back, not canceled, the meeting.
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Tester said again on Tuesday that he wanted to meet with Kavanaugh. Among the topics he wants to cover are privacy rights, women's access to health care, campaign finance reform and gun rights, said Tester spokeswoman Marnee Banks.
Matt Rosendale, Montana's state auditor and the senator's opponent, alleged that Tester had been caught in a "blatant lie."
"What I'm really disturbed by is the fact that two months ago, when the president came out and announced his nominee, Jon Tester said, 'I'm going to keep an open mind and meet with Brett Kavanaugh,'" Rosendale said.
Tester unveiled a television ad Wednesday promoting his collaboration with Trump as he seeks to inoculate himself against conservative critics.
Heitkamp is locked in a tough re-election fight in heavily Republican North Dakota, where she narrowly won six years ago and now faces a more formidable opponent in Rep. Kevin Cramer. Cramer has been a fervent supporter of Trump, who remains popular in North Dakota.
As Kavanaugh's hearings began, Cramer launched an ad attacking Heitkamp for a January procedural vote that effectively blocked legislation to make nearly all abortions after 20 weeks illegal.
The Kavanaugh nomination puts the same pressure on Heitkamp as last year, when she ultimately was one of only three Democrats to vote for Gorsuch's confirmation. She remains undecided.
"One of the most important jobs of any U.S. senator is to fully vet and consider nominees to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court - the highest court in our land," Heitkamp said in a statement. "And right now Judge Kavanaugh is going through his very important job interview which I'm watching closely as I continue to review his record."
Associated Press writers James MacPherson in Bismarck, North Dakota; Matthew Brown in Billings, Montana; and Catherine Lucey in Washington contributed to this report.