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North Dakota's 2018 Senate matchup: Cramer vs. Heitkamp?

From left: Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-ND, and Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-ND. (Herald graphic/Sam Easter)

Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., hasn’t announced if he’ll run for the U.S. Senate in 2018, but Democrats don’t seem to be waiting for him to make a move.

The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee attacked the Republican multiple times this month for his support of the GOP replacement plan for the Affordable Care Act. The committee is dedicated to electing Democrats to the Senate, and political experts say it’s placed Cramer in its crosshairs because he’s a likely candidate to take on incumbent Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp.

“If you’re looking at the map of senatorial elections in 2018, it’s not a very good map for the Democratic Party. There’s a lot more Democrats up for reelection than Republicans … and a lot of Democrats running where Trump won or won big,” said Nicholas Bauroth, a professor in the political science department at North Dakota State University. “If you’re looking at the map, and you’re a political operative, the thing that you would consider is that Heidi Heitkamp is someone they need to have win … and the most likely opponent would be the state’s single representative, Kevin Cramer.”

The DSCC hasn’t held back. An email sent on April 11 references a clip of Cramer discussing the failed GOP health care plan, which he supported, during a conversation with Chris Berg, a television host with KVLY-TV in Fargo. It calls the health care plan “toxic” and warns that it would increase costs.

“If Congressman Cramer decides he actually wants to run for anything besides dogcatcher after his humiliating health care defeat, he’ll see these clips again,” a spokesman says in the email, which announced online ads targeting Cramer.

Early shots

The opening salvo is part of a broader effort launched this week by the DSCC against potential GOP Senate candidates in states around the country, The Hill newspaper reports, and comes amid speculation that Cramer and Heitkamp -- neither of whom have announced their 2018 intentions -- will both vie for the same seat.

The race itself is one of national importance, with the Senate divided at 52 to 48 between Republicans and Democrats, and the math is in Republicans’ favor for 2018 as well. Of the 34 seats up for grabs, 25 belong to the Democrats, giving them the most to lose.

Bauroth added that the DSCC’s messaging makes sense when considering the return on investment. Money goes further swinging a Senate race in a state like North Dakota than in a large one like New York or California.

Though Heitkamp hasn’t officially said she’ll run, she has a growing war chest. According to Politico, she raised $1.6 million during the first quarter this year, giving her more than $2 million cash on hand.

"I'm taking the steps to prepare to run, but am still in the process of making a decision," Heitkamp said Friday, repeating a statement she gave earlier this month.

With strong name recognition, incumbency and experience as North Dakota attorney general, Heitkamp is perhaps the only Democrat poised to make a competitive bid to keep the seat in the party, Bauroth said, considering North Dakota’s increasing preference for sending Republicans to Washington. Although the state’s federal delegation was entirely blue just a few years ago, it’s begun to vote more and more like a rural, largely white state, Bauroth said -- which is to say, Republican.

Also notable is the state’s presidential voting record. President Donald Trump trounced Hillary Clinton here in November, winning the state with nearly 63 percent of the vote.  

No guarantee

Cramer, if he runs, is not guaranteed a path to the general election. Plenty of other North Dakota Republicans, such as Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, are sizing up a run. Becker said Thursday he’s weighing a rewarding career as a plastic surgeon against the rigor of a senator’s schedule.

“I’m looking into the Senate race,” he said. “If that means (Cramer) and I are having a healthy competitive race, then so be it. If not, that’s fine, too.”

A Friday CNN report also said state Sen. Tom Campbell, R-Grafton, might be the choice of Republicans in Washington, some of whom reportedly prefer his candidacy to Cramer’s as a result of the congressman’s recent inflammatory comments -- especially given Campbell’s personal wealth.

Earlier this week, Cramer appeared to defend White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who had made a controversial reference to Adolf Hitler. He previously suggested women lawmakers who wore white to an address by President Donald Trump might have a “disease” or “syndrome” of denial that Hillary Clinton had lost the election.

In an interview with the Herald, Cramer acknowledged a run as a possibility without suggesting what he’ll do.

“My thoughts on 2018 are that 2018 is a long ways away. I have a two-year term, and we’re at the front end of that two-year term,” he said, placing priorities like an Obamacare repeal and Farm Bill passage ahead of campaigning. He added that he felt complimented that DSCC officials had mentioned him as a potential candidate. 

“I’m kind of liking my chances all of a sudden,” he said.

Sam Easter

Sam Easter is a City Government reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. You can reach him with story tips, comments and ideas at 701-330-3441.

(701) 780-1108
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