WILLISTON, N.D. — Behind the Washington curtains — but in not-so-secret media-leaked fashion — senior members of the Republican party are romancing Congressman Kevin Cramer into a 2018 run for Sen. Heidi Heitkamp's seat.
This week, Cramer admitted he is not just flirting with that idea, but giving it serious consideration. He anticipates announcing a decision in January or February, he said Wednesday, Dec. 27, to allow people with an interest in either race to have enough lead time to make decisions themselves.
A number of factors are among those the congressman is weighing as he mulls a run for Heitkamp's Senate seat. The seat is one of 10 highlighted nationally as potentially ripe for changing parties in 2018.
Heitkamp's only opponent so far is a state lawmaker and potato farmer, Tom Campbell. Despite spending $500,000 of mostly his own money on media ads, however, he still has little name recognition outside his own district.
Attempts to woo Tioga-based oil field consultant and State Board of Higher Education member Kathy Neset were unsuccessful. And Fargo-based businesswoman Tammy Miller also declined to run for the seat, a week or so after Neset decided against it. Rick Berg, a former congressman who narrowly lost the Senate race to Heitkamp in 2012, hasn't ruled out another run.
Nationally, Republicans have admitted that 2018 could be a difficult election cycle for their party. That's somewhat typical for a mid-term, as voters generally tend to become disenchanted with their candidate.
National polling has shown Trump's approval rating dropping among well-educated voters and high-income earners. He is not doing well, in general, with female voters in particular, and his numbers have cratered in most swing states. Which ups the stakes for a seat in a state Trump carries so readily, where he appears to have retained at least some popularity, depending on which polls are consulted.
Cramer said the impact on his family of entering such a high-profile campaign will be first and foremost among the considerations he weighs. By family, he said, he means all the extended family, from their two widowed mothers down to all of the adult children and their grandchildren.
A campaign like this will not only attract widespread national attention, he added, but money from super PACs.
And it's also likely to attract so-called "dark" money from nonprofits, which are now allowed to receive unlimited donations from unidentified corporations, individuals and unions to spend on influencing elections since the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.
"With the super PACs and whatnot, you not only don't coordinate campaigns with them but by law cannot," Cramer said. "So you don't always know what's flying at you or your opponent. You have no control over it. So that is something we have to think about."
Another big factor he's weighing is the good he could do, first for his state, and secondly, for his country from each position.
"I have a lot to lose on behalf of North Dakota, because I hold the only House seat," Cramer said. "A lot of people who don't come from or are not familiar with at-large house seats don't understand, or at least it's not intuitive to them that when a state has just one member in the House, that has a multiplying factor."
Cramer serves on the Energy and Commerce committee.
"I would be giving up six years of seniority on what I would argue is the most important committee assignment in the House," he said. "In the Energy and Commerce Committee, you have a lot of influence over energy, environment and agriculture policy, particularly via the subcommittee I am on. The technology committee I serve on has a lot of ag-related issues. That's a lot of influence that a freshman would no doubt not have."
Three senior committee members won't be back next year, Cramer said, so he sees greater opportunity for upward mobility, especially in the energy sphere.
"Health care is under Energy and Commerce as well," Cramer said. "And that is all part of the factors I am thinking about when it comes to what is good for North Dakota."
This is being weighed against the potential good he could do in a Senate seat, for the country as a whole.
"So when I think about what is in the plus column if Heidi hadn't been senator the last six years ... We would have repealed Obamacare," Cramer said. "That's a big patriotic consideration. If she wasn't a senator we would have repealed the venting and flaring rule that is so important to North Dakota. We were one vote short to do that. So when you start thinking about the influence of a single senator, where one person has the ability to obstruct, even in a minority party, that is a very heavy weight, and it weighs very heavily in my consideration. How can we do better for America with one more North Dakota Republican?"
If he decides to run, Cramer said he is confident of a win and dismisses the size of his war chest compared to Heitkamp's as an indication of who might best whom in the 2018 race.
Heitkamp has $3.76 million in cash on hand, significantly more than the $869,000 Cramer has, but the congressman contends he has enough statewide name recognition to raise money quickly, if he decided to enter the race.
Mediawise, North Dakota is a cheap state, Cramer pointed out. It will cost tens of millions of dollars less than in states like Florida to run a successful campaign. That should be attractive to conservatives looking to help the Republican party pick up a seat to retain control of the Senate, where the party recently lost a seat in Alabama.
"I lead in every poll I've seen," Cramer said. "National pollsters, too, so there's a good chance I'd win. Donald Trump's popularity has grown in North Dakota. It's very high. We are one of four, five states where that is the case."
Internal Republican polls have shown Heitkamp down in a Cramer matchup; however, public polls from non-partisan groups have consistently shown her with high approval ratings. Morning Consult, for example, showed her approval ratings at 55 percent statewide.
Trump's polling numbers have dropped among women voters, according to national polls, and have all but cratered in many swing states. In North Dakota, they have dropped 21 percent, according to a FiveThirtyEight.com survey and 16 percent according to a Morning Consult report.
However popular he may or may not be in North Dakota, however, a Trump alignment is no guarantee of a win, Cramer acknowledged.
North Dakotans are "notoriously fiercely independent voters," he said. "The best evidence of that is that both Heitkamp and I won our first terms with the same voters. That has perplexed pundits in Washington for five and six years."