Cramer Announcement Puts Race in Toss Up

It appears that Republican At-Large U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer might have just been playing hard to get when he announced in January that he would not challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in November. Today, he has reversed himself, putting the race into the Toss Up column.

Cramer, 57, has said that the pleas for him to run only increased after he said he wouldn’t be a candidate, which made him rethink his decision. He has been a fixture in state politics since the early 1990s when he was chairman of the state Republican Party. In 1993, then-Gov. Ed Schafer appointed Cramer state Tourism Director and then to the post of Director of Economic Development. Then-Gov. John Hoeven appointed Cramer to fill a vacancy on the Public Service Commission; Cramer won a six-year term in 2004.

In 2012, Cramer ran for the state’s open At-Large U.S. House seat, winning with 55 percent of the vote. He was re-elected in 2014 with 55 percent and in 2016 with 69 percent. President Trump carried North Dakota with 63 percent, while Hoeven was re-elected to the U.S. Senate with 78 percent.

And, herein lies the problem for Heitkamp; she is a Democrat seeking a second term in a solidly red state. While Republicans generally are facing a tough cycle, unprecedented polarization and the presence of a well-known and well-funded GOP challenger means that Heitkamp is in for a very tough re-election fight. She prevailed in 2012 when she was elected to what was an open seat with 50 percent, beating then At-Large U.S. Rep. Rick Berg by just under 3,000 votes while GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried the state with 58 percent. Even so, the political environment seems more toxic than it was six years ago.

Democratic strategists contend that Heitkamp is very much in step with voters and has the voting record to prove it. Republicans counter that Heitkamp has become increasingly more partisan, pointing to her vote against tax reform as the latest example.

Cramer may have competition for the GOP nod. State Sen. and wealthy potato farmer Tom Campbell has been in the race for months and has already started airing television ads to introduce himself to voters. Campbell could easily drop back and run for Cramer’s House seat, but if he stays in the Senate primary contest, he is the underdog without much of a path to the nomination.

Heitkamp has survived tough races before, but Cramer is expected to be a stronger candidate and run a better campaign than Berg did in 2012. This should become one of the more competitive races of the cycle. It is now in the Toss Up column.

Image: John Angelillo/AP Images