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McFeely: Cramer 'trending' toward challenging Heitkamp

North Dakota Representative Kevin Cramer speaks Sunday, April 3, 2016, at the ND GOP Convention at Scheels Arena in Fargo of his choice to endorse Donald Trump for president. Rick Abbott / The Forum

FARGO—Kevin Cramer continues to dance the dance, being a tease about running for a U.S. Senate seat in North Dakota. Whether this is because the Republican Congressman is truly conflicted or because he likes being courted by President Donald Trump remains up for debate.

One sure way of getting a taste of Trump's shoe leather is, after all, to visit the White House.

But it sure looks like Cramer is going to take the plunge and challenge incumbent Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, which is a good start to the new year for most North Dakota Republicans and a less positive development for Heitkamp.

Cramer met with Trump at the White House on Tuesday, Jan. 2, and told Gray Television's Washington, D.C., bureau: "It was certainly a persuasive case the president made."

We say "most" North Dakota GOPers would welcome Cramer into the Senate race because we know one, for sure, who won't. That would be banker/farmer Tom Campbell, who has dropped at least $500,000 of his own money to introduce himself to North Dakotans through television advertising in hopes of unseating Heitkamp. After a brief and undistinguished career of being inconsequential in the North Dakota Legislature, Campbell figured the next logical step was to seek a job in Washington.

Campbell's candidacy went over so well with the Republican power center in western North Dakota that noted Twitter orator Rep. Roscoe Streyle of Minot gave what, for him, was a restrained endorsement: "I don't think Tom Campbell can beat Heidi in any way, shape or form. I just don't think he has what it takes, from a money-raising standpoint, to being able to debate her, to a record that would show he's done anything in the Legislature."

Republicans were starting to get a little nervous Campbell was going to be their only option to challenge Heitkamp, especially when some candidates recruited specifically to take him on decided against running. But now Cramer is looking much more likely to run than he did, say, a few months ago. He told Gray TV, "I'm certainly trending that way."

There have been other signs, too. Cramer's Twitter account responded to a tweet I wrote a few days ago that questioned what his private poll numbers are against Heitkamp.

"It would break your heart to see our polling @MikeMcFeelyWDAY," Cramer's tweet said.

When I asked via Twitter to see the polling, Cramer's account didn't respond.

One thing is certain: Cramer wouldn't be so buoyant about challenging Heitkamp if he wasn't polling well against her. He is a career politician, and one without great personal wealth, so for him to foolishly squander a safe seat in the U.S. House without a great degree of confidence in winning wouldn't make sense.

There's only one way to know and neither Cramer nor Heitkamp will release their internal polling.

Cramer's visit to the White House probably wasn't a one-way conversation. He would need some sort of assurance from Trump that the president would get to North Dakota as often as possible to campaign on Cramer's behalf. While Trump might be a millstone in many parts of the country, he's popular in North Dakota. Republicans are drooling over Heitkamp's vote against the recently passed tax bill, believing that's the nail in her political coffin.

Heitkamp remains undeterred by her tax vote, telling me a couple of weeks ago "so be it" if voting against the GOP bill costs her reelection. But her cavalier attitude would have to be tempered if Cramer entered the race. Campbell is a lightweight nobody knows. Cramer, like Heitkamp, has almost 100 percent name recognition and will have the Republican National Senatorial Committee's full weight behind him. The RNSC was not jazzed about Campbell.

If Cramer runs, Heitkamp's already difficult path to victory is much tougher than if she faced Campbell. Not impossible, but incredibly onerous.

As for Campbell, a Cramer run would push him aside—probably into changing his candidacy from the Senate to the House. That would probably draw a number of challengers, who view Campbell as beatable at a convention or in a primary. Imagine spending a half-million dollars and getting shoved aside.

Cramer says he'll announce a decision either way by late this month or early February. My prediction: He'll run. There are too many signs to think otherwise.

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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