Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, of North Dakota, is releasing her 10th television ad, titled “Truck Driver” Friday morning, on the same day President Trump will deliver remarks at a fundraiser for Heitkamp’s Republican opponent, Rep. Kevin Cramer. In an exclusive interview with CBS News, Heitkamp discussed her new ad, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the president’s trade policy and its effect on North Dakotans, and the New York Times anonymous op-ed penned by a senior administration official, which said that several insiders were working “to frustrate parts of [Mr. Trump’s] agenda and his worst inclinations.”
Heitkamp is running for re-election in one of the most heavily Republican states in the country, North Dakota, which Donald Trump won by a 36-point margin over Hillary Clinton. Her race heavily depends on her ability to convince voters that she’s a fierce advocate for their local and national concerns, an independent vote in the Senate who’s ready to take a stand against the president or her own party if it’s in the interest of her constituents.
Over the course of the last three days, Kavanaugh has undergone hours of questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee for his confirmation hearings to be Donald Trump’s second Supreme Court nominee. In addition to two Republican senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Democrats have been pressuring their members to reject Kavanaugh and keep him off the high court. Heitkamp is one of three Senate Democrats who voted to confirm Neil Gorsuch, Mr. Trump’s first nominee. Heitkamp told CBS News that she has not yet made a decision yet about her vote. She plans to use the next couple of days to digest all the material related to his confirmation.
“This weekend will be an opportunity to review the record and kind of re-evaluate where we are and what more information we would need to make a decision,” she said.
Heitkamp was critical of the anonymous senior administration official who wrote the Times op-ed and urged the official to take ownership, calling it “cowardly” to hide behind an unsigned op-ed.
“If somebody is going to say something with serious allegations then they should have the courage and, I think, the decency to sign the letter,” Heitkamp said.
Though she sides with the president on some issues, Heitkamp says she’s been a vocal critic of the Trump administration’s tariff policy, which has been hurting North Dakota farmers, causing a drop in prices for their crops. Heitkamp last spoke to the president about trade-related issues “right after” he was in North Dakota in June. And she’s regularly in touch with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to relay farmers’ concerns with the trade policy.
“We try and communicate regularly with these guys to just let them know that this is not going good in North Dakota,” Heitkamp said.
Heitkamp is also concerned about a looming pension crisis, which is the focal point of her new ad. Al Thomas, who was a truck driver for 18 years, gives a testimonial in the ad about Heitkamp’s efforts on behalf of union workers’ pensions.
“Heidi’s fought like hell for 2,000 of us North Dakota retirees,” Thomas said in the ad. “Kevin Cramer did practically nothing.”
Heitkamp has been working to save multiemployer pension plans through the Butch Lewis Act, which she helped author. The legislation would create a new federal agency called the Pension Rehabilitation Administration under the Treasury Department. The bill would also allow the Treasury Department to issue 30-year loans for these pension plans to ensure that retirees receive their benefits. In North Dakota, 2,000 people, who work in the grocery supply and trucking industries, rely on the Central States Pension Fund for their retirement benefits.
“We can’t afford to lose my pension, ” Thomas said in the ad with video footage showing him and his wife. “I have two crushed discs. My shoulders are shot, but the government was going to cut our benefits in half.”
Heitkamp is also a member of a bipartisan, House and Senate Joint Select Committee, that is focused on fixing the multiemployer pension plan crisis. She added that “time is of the essence” before these pension plans reach insolvency.
“If in fact Central States goes down that means the entire pension guarantee fund is at risk and basically bankrupt, and it also will affect small businesses that are still on the multiemployer pension system and could, in fact, collapse and bankrupt small businesses,” Heitkamp said. “So, this isn’t a small deal.”
Cramer, too, supports Heitkamp’s legislation — he’s the second Republican to sign onto the House version of the bill. In a press release provided to CBS News, Heitkamp’s campaign said Cramer is just giving “election-year lip-service to the pension crisis.” Heitkamp added that Republicans do not bring the same urgency to bailing out workers and retirees as they did for big bankers during the Wall Street financial crisis in 2008.
“When you measure how quickly the Republican Party was willing to bail out Wall Street during the economic collapse and how slowly they have been moving to deal with this pension issue — which comes about through no fault of any of these workers — I think that’s a real difference in values,” she said.
Thomas, who first met Heitkamp in the early 1980s, told CBS News that she has consistently defended the working people during his career, and is suspicious of Cramer’s slowness to co-sponsor the House bill.
“The vast majority of us feel the only reason he co-sponsored this bill was so he could try and get some votes out of labor,” Thomas said.
In anticipation of Mr. Trump’s visit to North Dakota, Cramer’s campaign released a statement on Thursday noting that the campaign has raised over one million dollars for the Friday fundraiser featuring the president. The campaign said that 90 percent of the donations came from North Dakotans.
“This groundswell of grassroots support demonstrates the continuing support for President Trump, as well as the tremendous momentum we have for our campaign,” Cramer said in a statement. “This will be President Trump’s fourth visit to North Dakota, his third as president, and we deeply appreciate his continued presence in our state and his work to enact the agenda we voted for.”
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