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Analysis: Takeaways from Tom Campbell's weekend interview

Sen. Tom Campbell, R-Grafton, checks out a wash line in a potato packing plant at Campbell Farms in Grafton, N.D., recently. Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald

Over the weekend, Forum News Service political reporters John Hageman and Sam Easter offered us the first extensive reporting inside Republican Tom Campbell’s campaign to challenge Heidi Heitkamp for her U.S. Senate seat next year, although that is by far our first glimpse at him.

Campbell, a state legislator and agri-businessman based in northeast North Dakota’s Walsh County, has been carpet-bombing the state with an extensive advertising blitz, reportedly lending his own race $425,000. Whether that blitz has been paying off with Republican primary voters is, as yet, up in the air, but it has successfully caught a lot of attention from our pundits, including Mike McFeelyJack Zaleski and Rob Port. (You can find a collection of coverage on Campbell’s campaign here.)

It also caught the attention of one Fargo letter writer, who said of Campbell “...you have made it abundantly clear to the point of ad nauseam that you are ready to do Trump's bidding.”

So what came from this latest report? Here are a few takeaways:

Campbell uses a comparison to animals when discussing welfare recipients who use drugs. Campbell says he has a “caring heart” and part of his experience speaks to that. He did prison ministry for 18 years and served on the board for Northlands Rescue Mission, a non-profit homeless shelter in Grand Forks.

Part of the problem there, Campbell says, is that people grow dependent on handouts.

"It's just like when you go into a forest where it says, 'Don't feed the animals,' because then they'll become dependent on it," he said, referring to welfare benefits. "I wanted to keep giving them their benefits so they would not be deprived of it, but yet put them in an environment where there's no drugs." Campbell apparently didn’t explain this position with any further data beyond that observation.

To give him the benefit of the doubt, Campbell was likely reaching for a handy metaphor to explain what the limits of social welfare should be. But that does little to dispel the dangerous notions that any class of people is essentially subhuman or that we turn our backs on people with addiction problems. In fact, that runs completely counter to a statement made by Fargo Police Chief Todd back in December: “In order to be effective, we need to look at it (addiction) as a health issue and less as a criminal issue. [...] We need to make it safe for people with addiction issues to seek health care in hope they can overcome their addiction.”

Comparing people to animals in this manner isn’t new. In 2015 Annette Bosworth, a Republican running for the Senate in South Dakota, received a lot of flak after making largely the same claim in a Facebook post. She lost her bid for the nomination.

He’s going all-in on Trumpism. In his ads and in this latest interview, Campbell has made it clear that he’s aligning himself with President Donald Trump, citing Trump’s popularity with North Dakotans. He also credits a roaring stock market and low unemployment to the president’s influence, although those are trends that arguably began during Barack Obama’s presidency.

Campbell wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act (months after such an effort by GOP lawmakers failed) and is keeping a “close eye” on where Trump lands on the North American Free Trade Agreement. Trump has wavered in his stance on NAFTA, but at one time he vehemently opposed it much like he opposes other multilateral trade agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership. Several ag groups have urged the president to stick with NAFTA.

Campbell is also 100 percent behind Trump’s EPA pick, Scott Pruitt. Pruitt was instrumental in rolling back the Obama administration’s Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, which was highly unpopular with farmers.

Nationally, the Republican party is struggling with the question of Trump’s influence, particularly in the wake of an off-year election victory by Democratic candidate Ed Northam in Virginia.

He faces an uphill battle, not only against Heitkamp but against his own party here. At least one of his own party in the state thinks Campbell is wasting his time.

"I don't think Tom Campbell can beat Heidi in any way, shape or form," state Rep. Roscoe Streyle, R-Minot, said in this weekend’s report. "I just don't think he has what it takes, from a raising money standpoint, to being able to debate her, to a record that would show he's done anything in the Legislature."

One probable explanation is that the dance floor seems largely set for one candidate: Rep. Kevin Cramer, who has yet to join the race for Heitkamp’s Senate seat but seems likely to run. Cramer said in a recent interview with The Hill that Trump has urged him to run. If he did, that could make Campbell a possible successor for Cramer’s House seat.

Either way, Campbell seems to be showing the same grit and vigor he showed in a lifetime in the rough-and-tumble business of farming.

"Nobody can outwork me," he said. "There's not enough hours in the day."

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