Originally Published: September 6, 2018 8:03 p.m.
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — President Donald Trump praised Judge Brett Kavanaugh's progress in winning confirmation to the Supreme Court on Thursday, decrying the "anger and the meanness on the other side — it's sick."
Campaigning in Billings, Montana, Trump sought to elevate Kavanaugh's confirmation as a political litmus test for voters as he embraced a Republican challenger to Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, a top Republican target in the fall elections.
Trump said at a rally alongside Tester's opponent, state Auditor Matt Rosendale, that Tester "will never drain the swamp because he happens to live in the swamp." Seeking to portray the Montana farmer as a tool of liberal Democrats, Trump said, "Jon Tester talks like he's from Montana, but he votes like he's Nancy Pelosi" — a reference to the House minority leader, who is a frequent Trump target.
Trump said many of the Senate Democrats whom Tester had helped elect "are attacking Judge Kavanaugh and looking like fools." He said Kavanaugh deserved "overwhelming bipartisan support."
Diving into the Supreme Court nomination fight, the president's strategy aims to turn the screws on Tester and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, where Trump planned to appear for a fundraiser on Friday. The two red-state Senate Democrats find themselves caught between their Senate leaders and their states' more conservative voters, who are 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Rosendale 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.
Likewise, 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.
On Friday, Trump is set to travel to Fargo, North Dakota, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to attend fundraisers.