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For Republicans it may be Cramer for Senate or bust

columnist Rob Port

MINOT, N.D. — Republicans are not setting themselves up to be able to win the race against U.S. Senate incumbent Heidi Heitkamp with any candidate but Congressman Kevin Cramer.

Cramer announced late last month that he wouldn't be running for the Senate. He said he'd rather stay in the House where he enjoys the two-year campaign cycle and his growing seniority in committee assignments.

But some Republicans aren't taking no for an answer.

I was the first to report that Cramer, under intense pressure from the Trump administration as I later learned, was reconsidering a Senate run. Now this week unnamed Republican operatives have leaked opposition research on state Senator Tom Campbell — who has been campaigning for the Senate since last summer — to the right-leaning Washington Examiner.

The bullet points about Campbell these Republicans feel make him a vulnerable candidate are that his bank has foreclosed on some North Dakota farmers (Campbell is the chairman of Choice Financial Banks), that he was involved in a lawsuit over his mother's life insurance policy (it was ultimately settled out of court), and that he supports hemp farming and even wants to do it himself.

The last is bizarre to think of as a knock on Campbell given that a) hemp farming isn't all that controversial in North Dakota and b) voters in our state cast their ballots overwhelmingly for medical marijuana in 2016.

That's the danger in relying on the political analysis of out of state operatives.

But that's beside the point. The goal in this exercise is to create a perception of Campbell as a candidate who can't win.

"Kevin Cramer might be the most heavily recruited candidate in the history of Republican politics," is a quote Examiner reporter David Drucker attributes an unnamed Republican insider as saying.

That's a hyperbolic pronunciation, but the larger point is clear.

Republicans, or at least a faction thereof, don't think they can beat Heidi Heitkamp with anyone but Kevin Cramer.

That may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Between Cramer dragging his feet on his initial decision on a Senate race, and now caving to pressure to reconsider that choice, it's created so much media that the public is going to perceive any Republican challenging Heitkamp in 2018 who isn't named Kevin Cramer as weak sauce.

Perception in politics is reality.

You aren't going to beat a tough incumbent Democrat with millions in out of state money filling her coffers with a candidate the public perceives as the runner up.

The die is cast now, I'm afraid. Either Kevin Cramer gets in the Senate race or Republicans make themselves comfortable with another six years of Heidi Heitkamp.