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Jacobs: Week brings surprise and risk

Here's a summary of last week's news in North Dakota: Two big surprises and two big risks. Surprise No. 1: Kevin Cramer decided to give up a safe seat and more clout in the U.S. House of Representatives to run for the Senate. He made that announc...

Here's a summary of last week's news in North Dakota: Two big surprises and two big risks.

Surprise No. 1: Kevin Cramer decided to give up a safe seat and more clout in the U.S. House of Representatives to run for the Senate. He made that announcement late Friday, by which time it wasn't much of a surprise. But it's still a risk, and not just for Cramer.

True enough, Cramer's decision makes the U.S. Senate race much more competitive, but that doesn't mean he'll win. Heidi Heitkamp is a formidable campaigner, as she proved six years ago. That race came down to fewer than 3,000 votes, which is probably about the number of voters she convinced by knocking on their doors.

Cramer's decision means the House seat also could be in play. Tom Campbell followed through on his promise to abandon his Senate campaign if Cramer wanted the seat. Now he's hoping that his money spent on television advertising will carry him into the House - but that's not sure. Campbell faces a convention fight, probably from Kelly Armstrong, a fellow state senator who also chairs the state Republican Party. Former party chair Gary Emineth might get in, too, and there are other potential candidates, some serious and some not. This could turn into a primary contest. That's the route Cramer himself chose in 2012.

Any risk to a Republican victory requires a Democratic candidate. Former legislator Ben Hanson wants the chance, but Democrats may not want him now that the race appears more competitive. A stronger House candidate would help Heitkamp's re-election chances, and that means a campaign could be worth the investment, both for her and her party. One potential candidate is Aaron Krauter, a farmer and former state senator. He was Heitkamp's running mate in 2000, when she lost the governorship to John Hoeven. He served eight years as state director of the Farm Service Agency, which put him in contact with farmers across the state. When he retired, Heitkamp described him to a Bismarck Tribune reporter as "one of the smartest people I've ever known."

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Heitkamp is the only Democrat to have won a statewide election in North Dakota since 2008, and North Dakotans gave Donald Trump his fourth largest vote share among the states, 63 percent, behind Oklahoma, West Virginia and Wyoming and tied with Kentucky. The election may have been an anomaly. Trump's margin in North Dakota was 123,000 votes; in 2012, Mitt Romney's margin was about half that number.

This is an off-year, with no presidential candidates on the ballot.

Historically, this has meant a reaction against the party of the president, but other factors are in play. Money is one. The campaign will be the most expensive in the state's history. Potentially it will be the costliest per vote cast in U.S. history.

Another is the framing of the campaign. Cramer told reporters that Trump persuaded him to abandon his safe seat by telling him he was doing it for the country, suggesting that the president wants a referendum on his own performance. Heitkamp has worked to build an independent brand. The word "bipartisan" appears frequently in news releases from her office.

Cramer's decision appeared to be a reluctant one, and he won some concessions. One is Trump's own endorsement and an IOU promising campaign visits, perhaps as soon as the Republican state convention in Grand Forks in early April. Also, Harold Hamm will chair Cramer's fundraising committee. Hamm is chief executive of Continental Resources, and the world's 89th richest person, according to Wikipedia.

Given the risk, there ought to be a job waiting, as well. Just in case. For Kevin's sake.

The other big surprise of the week was UND President Mark Kennedy's announcement that he'll be interviewing for the top job at the University of Central Florida. Ambition to leave after less than two years as president puts Kennedy's effectiveness at UND at increased risk.

Risking my own reputation, I made a careless error in this column last week. In a letter published Friday, Public Service Commissioner Robert Christmann pointed out that the PSC does not regulate rural electric co-ops. I dropped the negative, an error that journalism school professors warned me against half a century ago. Also, Xcel Energy doesn't own coal-fired plants in North Dakota nor burn North Dakota coal elsewhere, Christmann said. The fact that power is shared through a regional power pool diminishes the point. Another reader objected to my use of the word "territorial" in describing North Dakota law governing utility service areas; the proper term is "territorial integrity."

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Finally, weather pushed my talk about North Dakota in the 1840s to this Sunday at 2 p.m. the Grand Forks County Historical Society, weather depending, as always in North Dakota.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.

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