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Mike Jacobs: The elephant enters the room

FILE PHOTO: Donald Trump speaks in Eugene, Oregon, on May 6, 2016. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

The headline on last week's column said something about an elephant on the state's political landscape. This week the elephant is entering the room.

Yes! Donald Trump is coming to North Dakota.

It's not entirely clear why. Asked to explain the visit, one Republican insider said, "I have no idea."

Lack of information, of course, encourages speculation. With that adage in mind, here goes, with the possibilities arranged more or less by categories, starting with policy.

In announcing the visit, Sen. John Hoeven said the president wants to talk about tax reform. He also hinted that something might be said about energy. Both are pressing topics here. North Dakota, now the nation's second largest oil producer, is suffering an economic downturn as oil prices have fallen.

Trump has promised energy self-sufficiency during his presidency, and perhaps he will provide hints about how that might be achieved. If that's the case, he'll be likely to take a two-term view.

Tax reform is not quite a top-of-mind issue, but any changes in the status quo could have impact in North Dakota. One that's attracted anxious attention among farmers could result in higher capital gains taxes when inherited farmland is sold.

Disaster relief is at the top of many North Dakota minds. This year's drought is easily the most severe since the late 1980s. Until last week, the possibility of federal drought relief seemed remote. Hurricane Harvey changed that. If relief for flood, perhaps also relief for drought.

These three pretty much exhaust the policy possibilities, so we'll move on to politics.

Conservative blogger Rob Port suggests that the president is coming to put pressure on U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat facing re-election next year. That's certainly a potential motive.

Heitkamp herself apparently anticipates a squeeze play. She welcomed Trump's visit on her website (heitkamp.senate.gov). "Any time a president comes to North Dakota it's a great opportunity to lay the groundwork for a better future for our businesses and our families."

Heitkamp is on the short list of Senate Democrats who've been friendly to Trump — no surprise since he won 63 percent of the vote here in 2016. It's hard to see how a Trump squeeze play would work, though. Heitkamp remains a Democrat on what she calls "kitchen-table" issues.

For her part, Heitkamp's statement appeared to bait the president. About tax reform, she said, "I'm glad to welcome President Trump to North Dakota where North Dakotans are eager to hear more about his tax reform plan. Too often, when North Dakota business and families want to plan for the future, our tax code leaves them twisting in the wind. ... That's why I've been pushing for both sides of the aisle to work together toward permanent, comprehensive solutions that will do away with loopholes and handouts for special interests and instead promote our small businesses, farm economy and energy industries with the fiscally responsible reforms they need to grow and expand."

Will Trump be tempted to respond?

What's more, the Republicans have a crowded field of candidates, and it may be that one of them will be a target of presidential attention. Rep. Kevin Cramer's reluctance to declare his intentions — whether to run for the Senate or for re-election to the House — has clouded the picture for Republicans and potentially made a successful campaign against Heitkamp more difficult. The president may want to give a congressman a shove.

Cramer has been a Trump sycophant, one of the first members of Congress to endorse him and a steady ally. Last week he celebrated the administration's decision to make a Dickinson firm one of the finalists to build a prototype for Trump's border wall.

Any Trump praise of Cramer could be seen as a slap at Heitkamp, though. Sen. Hoeven, who announced the visit, could be a Trump target, too. Hoeven has been coy in his support of the president, in keeping with his usually cautious political character. He strayed a bit on health care; Trump may wish to keep him more firmly in line on tax reform.

There's no shortage of other Republicans eager for the president's favor, of course, but he's not likely to wade into the thorny thicket of potential candidates.

Politics and policy are potential motives for Trump's visit, but it seems more likely that the reason he's coming is more personal. He expects a warm reception here.

The visit is likely part of the victory lap that the president has been running around the country with visits to states that helped him win the presidency. Trump likes to go where the crowds like him. This week, it's North Dakota's turn.

Maybe the visit will include policy outlines. Maybe it will produce political news. That would be out of character for the presidential victory lap.

Listen instead for the cheering. That's what Trump will be doing.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald. Email him at mjacobs@gfherald.com.

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