As Cramer demurs Republicans lose their last, best chance to beat Heitkamp

“We’ve decided that the best thing for our family and me and really for North Dakota…is to seek re-election to the House of Representatives,” Congressman Kevin Cramer told talk radio host Scott Hennen this week.

Cramer had been expected by many (including this observer) to run for the U.S. Senate, and challenge vulnerable Democratic incumbent Heidi Heitkamp, particularly after being urged to do so this month by no less a political figure than the President of the United States.

Instead Cramer demurred.

“I’m not the only person who can win the Senate seat,” Cramer said during his conversation with Hennen, trying to put a positive spin on his decision not to run.

“I want Republicans to understand that,” he added. “This is a seat we can win in this election cycle.”

The Republicans I’m talking to aren’t buying it.

“I guess we’re stuck with Campbell,” one NDGOP big wig told me upon learning of Cramer’s announcement.

Said big wig was referring to state Sen. Tom Campbell, a Republican from Grafton who has already been campaigning for the Senate for months but has so far failed to win a lot of enthusiasm for his candidacy.

“I wish Kevin would just step aside,” another dejected Republican, a former lawmaker, told me.

Make no mistake, this was a momentous announcement for Cramer with implications far outside the world of North Dakota politics. Trump won North Dakota in a landslide. The state has been trending toward Republicans for years now. Republican apparatchiks have been braying about Heitkamp’s electoral vulnerabilities for months now.

And yet, if Heitkamp is so vulnerable here in Trump country, why has one likely Republican candidate after another declined to challenge her?

In addition to Cramer, oil industry consultant and State Board of Higher Education member Kathy Neset has declined a Senate race, as has Fargo-based Border States Electric CEO Tammy Miller.

That Republicans are so uninterested in challenging a supposedly vulnerable Democratic incumbent in deeply-red Trump country is a talking point Democrats can and will pick up nationally.

If Republicans can’t recruit a strong Senate candidate in North Dakota of all places, where Democrats haven’t won a statewide election since 2012, what chance do they have in other places that are less friendly to Trump and the GOP?

Cramer, a staunch Trump loyalist, has perhaps given North Dakota and the nation the strongest indication to date that Republicans are in trouble heading into the midterms.

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