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Jacobs: An elephant (with a Trump hairdo) looms on the political landscape

While surveying North Dakota's political landscape it's hard to miss the elephant on the skyline.

Notice the hairdo?

Yup! The elephant's name is Donald Trump.

Trump looms large in the state, and no wonder. He won 63 percent of the vote in 2016. In a poll early this summer, his support in North Dakota was second among the states, lower only than West Virginia.

Trump figures into every politician's calculations, and candidates position themselves in relationship to him. For some, this means opportunity. For others, there's risk.

U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp is critical of Trump on some issues but supportive on many others. This creates a double-edged risk for her. One is that members of her own Democratic Party might desert her. The other is that independents and Republicans who helped elect her in 2012 might not support her in 2018, when she faces re-election. For her, Trump is a clear and present danger. She must maneuver cautiously and so far, that's just what she's done.

Tom Campbell, a state senator, is the only announced candidate against her. His early advertising emphasizes his support of the president. Campbell's challenge in the early going is to establish a statewide presence. He appears willing to spend his own wealth, earned in the potato business. For him, Trump is an opportunity.

Kevin Cramer, a Republican and the state's only member of the U.S. House, seems to regard the president as some kind of prophet and himself as some kind of an acolyte. His statements about Trump are uniformly laudatory. He's even found success where others have seen dysfunction.

Cramer's job will be on the line in 2018, of course. He hasn't said he's running, and he hasn't said he's not. There's speculation that he might decide to run against Heitkamp. That decision could be delayed until late winter, just ahead of the party's endorsing convention. That will give Cramer time to evaluate the balance that Heitkamp has tried to strike. If she seems strong, he's unlikely to challenge her.

For him, defeat would mean unemployment in January 2019 at age 58.

The only announced candidate for the House is Ben Hanson, a former state legislator. He's a Democrat who clearly hopes to avoid any encounter with the elephant on the political landscape. "I'm not running against the president," he said.

John Hoeven, Heitkamp's colleague in the Senate, is in a position that makes it possible for him to avoid committing himself most of the time. Trump is no threat to him.

Hoeven was re-elected to the Senate in 2016, when the ballot included Trump. Trump didn't

provide any coattails for Hoeven. The senator outpolled him by 52,000 votes, winning 78 percent of votes cast compared with Trump's 63 percent.

For his part, Hoeven appears to be positioned beside the president — but not too closely. During the health care debate, for example, he was critical of bills to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, but he withheld his opinion until the outcome was clear.

In an appearance at the Grand Forks Rotary Club a week ago, Hoeven didn't mention the president. At other venues he spoke favorably about the president, so much so that the Herald's headline on Wednesday of last week was "Hoven praises Trump's policy." The story was about the president's strategy in Afghanistan, however, not about his conduct in office.

Hoeven is clearly touchy about Trump. Earlier this month, he walked out of a radio studio when talk show host Scott Hennen — a Trump sycophant — accused him of helping Democrats by not defending the president's reaction to violence in Charlottesville. In an interview with the Herald editorial board during his 2016 re-election campaign, he became testy when he was pressed about Trump's fitness to be president.

Contrast this with another senator's speech to a Rotary Club, this time in Tennessee. Sen. Robert Corker criticized the president's reaction to the demonstrations. Corker has been supportive, even friendly to Trump, and he was considered for the Cabinet. His term ends in 2020, concurrent with Trump's own.

None of that kept him quiet.

Hoeven's reluctance is in character for him. Like others before him — former U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan notably — Hoeven doesn't like political risks, but he really is in the catbird's seat. Hoeven won't face re-election until 2022, a non-presidential year, when Trump would be in the middle of his second term, if he wins re-election.

Hoeven is in the catbird's seat and so his political calculation is a different one. For him, the elephant on the landscape is Mitch McConnell, the Senate's Republican leader. Hoeven's loyalties must lie with the leader, who exerts enormous influence over committee memberships and other prerogatives of the Senate. As regards to Trump, it's likely that as goes McConnell, so will Hoeven go.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald. He can be reached at mjacobs@gfherald.com.

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