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Network led by billionaire Koch holding off on funds for Cramer's campaign

North Dakota Representative Kevin Cramer who running for U.S. Senate. Forum News Service file photo

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - The Koch political network announced Monday that it does not currently plan to support Republican Kevin Cramer in his effort to unseat Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, one of the most vulnerable Democrats up for reelection this November.

Heitkamp's race is a top pickup opportunity for Republicans, who are trying to retain their slim two-seat majority in the Senate. Heitkamp, the only Democrat who holds statewide office in North Dakota, is running for reelection in a state that Donald Trump won by more than 35 points.

The network - which is backed by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch and like-minded donors - also has no current plans to back Senate candidates in Nevada and Indiana, two key red-state races that are pickup opportunities for Republicans this fall, according to details it released Monday.

In all, Koch groups are backing GOP candidates in just four Senate races right now, and so far steering clear of five out of the eight toss-up races.

The network's decision places it at odds with President Donald Trump, who campaigned for Cramer at a rally in Fargo last month.

Cramer said in response on Monday after he learned of the move that he "respected the decision by the Koch Network to not engage in the North Dakota Senate race. As I have always said, I work for the people of North Dakota and will always vote with them in mind. That is why I supported tax cuts, jobs creation, patient centered healthcare, strong borders, free, fair and reciprocal trade, and a strong military and veterans' care. My voting record may not be exactly what every national organization wants, but it is exactly what the majority of North Dakotans expect. I look forward to working with the Koch organization on the things we agree on in the United States Senate."

Meanwhile, Julia Krieger, Heitkamp campaign spokeswoman, said in a statement: "When it comes leading on the pocketbook issues North Dakotans care about - from strong trade markets to responsible spending and cutting red tape for North Dakota businesses - Heidi has always been consistent: North Dakota comes first."

The network - which is backed by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch and like-minded donors - also has no current plans to back Senate candidates in Nevada and Indiana, two key battleground states for the Senate majority this fall, according to details it released Monday.

The decision by the conservative political network to withhold its firepower in pivotal races - at least for now - comes as top Koch officials are expressing frustration with Republican Party leaders and Trump over trade policies and the rhetoric in Washington.

As Koch officials laid out their plans for the 2018 midterms for more than 500 donors gathered at a luxury resort in Colorado Springs, Colo., they warned that the GOP should not take its resources for granted.

Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, the network's main political arm, said the group is more carefully assessing which candidates it will back, based on their support of the network's free-market policy priorities.

"We're raising the bar," he said. "We're raising expectations because we've got to change the trajectory of this country."

Phillips said that "if this were 2016 or 2014, we would likely have just gone ahead and endorsed" Cramer. But he said the three-term congressman has been "inconsistent" on a range of issues, including the Affordable Care Act, free trade and immigration policies. He also noted Cramer's support for agriculture subsidies.

"If Cramer doesn't step up to lead, that makes it harder to support him," Phillips said.

Earlier this year, AFP ran a digital ad thanking Heitkamp for co-sponsoring a bill that rolls back regulations placed on banks after the 2008 financial crisis.

Restoration PAC, a major conservative super PAC backing Cramer reiterated its support for the candidate as soon as Phillips's remarks to donors became public, as if to signal that Cramer will still be backed by big-money outside groups.

"Restoration PAC has won every race it has been involved in this year and we expect the same outcome in North Dakota," the group's founder, Doug Truax, said in a statement.

The super PAC is almost entirely funded by Richard Uihlein, a wealthy shipping-supplies magnate from Illinois who currently is the single largest donor to outside groups supporting Republicans in the midterms.

On Monday, AFP chief executive Emily Seidel sought to underscore the importance of the network's independence, saying a GOP senator who she did not name reportedly told colleagues at a Republican caucus meeting: "Don't worry about the Kochs. They're going to support Republicans regardless."

"And by Kochs, he was talking about all of you," she told donors. "We can't keep falling into the trap just doing what we need to do to get through November."

In an interview with reporters Sunday, Koch expressed regret for some of the Republican lawmakers his network supported in the past, without naming them.

"We're going to be much stricter" in endorsements this year, he said.

AFP is still expected to be a powerful force for conservative candidates and causes this midterm cycle. Officials have reiterated their plan to spend up to $400 million in the cycle on public policy issues and political campaigns.

The network will get involved in dozens of races this fall, with plans to back GOP Senate candidates in Wisconsin, Missouri, Florida and Tennessee and gubernatorial candidates in Michigan and Nevada, officials said Monday.

In a private presentation to donors, AFP officials identified six Senate candidates in addition to Blackburn as potential candidates whom they view as supportive of the network's free-market policy priorities: Rick Scott of Florida, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Matt Rosendale of Montana, Patrick Morrisey of West Virginia, Leah Vukmir of Wisconsin and Kevin Nicholson of Wisconsin.

The network is also plowing resources into supporting the confirmation of Trump's second pick for the Supreme Court, federal judge Brett Kavanaugh, including in states where Democrats are the most vulnerable this fall. AFP has mobilized its nationwide network of activists, focusing on senators in Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Indiana, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio and West Virginia.