Republicans raise crop of candidates

Like weeds in a summer garden, Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate keep cropping up.

To be strictly accurate, these are candidates for the Republican endorsement for the U.S. Senate.

So far, there’s only one of these.

There’s lots of talk about others, though, because the announced candidate hasn’t stirred enthusiasm among Republicans. That candidate is Tom Campbell, a state senator from Grafton. His ambition is no surprise. He’s said for months that he would be a candidate for federal office.

He had indicated, however, that he’d wait for U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer to make the first move. Should Cramer opt to run for the Senate, he, Campbell, would run for the House. If Cramer ran for re-election, well then, Campbell would run for the Senate. Perhaps the two have talked. Perhaps Campbell just got impatient.

An early announcement might be smart politics. It could create an air of inevitability about a Campbell candidacy. That might be the only winning strategy for Campbell, who’s not popular within the party.

He made two important declarations immediately after becoming a candidate. One is that he’s all in for Donald Trump. That’s a pre-emptive move that identifies him with Cramer. Cramer became an adoring fan of Donald Trump well before the election and has defended the president consistently. Trump carried North Dakota by a wide margin and his popularity level remained high, close to 60 percent, in the most recent polls. Those were taken before last week’s unpleasantness.

Campbell’s other declaration was more personal and perhaps more powerful. He immediately launched a television campaign. The message there is clear. He can fund his own campaign. He’s well off and doesn’t hide it. Personal wealth is a campaign asset. Republican money worries that Campbell might be a candidate like Rick Berg. In 2012, Berg lost to Heidi Heitkamp by fewer than 3,000 votes.

Republicans who didn’t like Berg provided some of those votes.

It wasn’t Republican votes alone that elected Heitkamp. She worked incredibly hard and turned out the Democratic base. But the Democratic base isn’t big enough to win a statewide election. In fact, Heitkamp is the only Democrat to win statewide since 2008. So Republicans continue to seek other candidates. As many as half a dozen names have been mentioned. A couple of them should be taken seriously.

One of these is Rick C. Becker, founder of the small government caucus in the state House of Representatives. He was a candidate for the gubernatorial endorsement in 2016 – an election that saw a surge in strength for his point of view. No doubt his organization helped find and elect legislative candidates. A repeat of that success could make his Bastiat Caucus – named for a French free market thinker – the controlling faction in the state House.

Earlier in the summer, a small boom developed for Kathy Neset. She’s a geologist who’s profited enormously from the Bakken oil play. Neset is a kind of darling of development-oriented Republicans. Her only public service has been with the Board of Higher Education, which she chaired.

Kelly Armstrong is regarded as another potential candidate. He’s a state senator from Dickinson. More important, perhaps, he’s the chair of the state Republican Party – the organization that’s looking for an alternative to Campbell’s candidacy. Armstrong has said he intends to lead the party, but not as a candidate.

Of course, there’s time for him to change his mind.

Another state senator has been mentioned, Nichole Poolman of Bismarck. She ran for lieutenant governor with Wayne Stenehjem and lost the 2016 primary election.

Then there’s ex-candidate Berg. There’s speculation he might want to avenge his loss to Heitkamp.

That’s six names, a pretty long list. It doesn’t exhaust the possibilities, but it pretty well covers the credible candidates, at least for now.

In the meantime, a fall round of Republican socials and fundraisers has gotten under way. February and March will bring district conventions that will choose local legislative candidates and delegates to the state convention, which will be held in Grand Forks in April.

The other political news last week was a bigger surprise than Campbell’s announcement. Democrats got themselves a candidate for the U.S. House – an exceptionally early development for them. Last election round, candidates had to be hustled up at the state endorsing convention.

The candidate is Ben Hagen, a former legislator. He’s young – and he has relevant political experience. He’s lost an election. In 2016 he was defeated for re-election, running last in the field.

Still, the emergence of an eager candidate so early in the process has to be a good sign for Democrats. Their top-of- ticket candidates may be known more than a year ahead of the 2018 election. Republicans still have to winnow the field.

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

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