Top Republicans are pleading with Rep. Kevin Cramer to reconsider his decision to spurn the U.S. Senate race in North Dakota, fearing the party is on track to blow a prime pickup opportunity.
White House officials and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., are making another run at Cramer after internal opposition research on state Sen. Tom Campbell, the leading Republican to run in his place, turned up troubling information they worry could be a treasure trove for Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp.
“Kevin Cramer might be the most heavily recruited candidate in the history of Republican politics,” said a veteran Republican insider familiar with matter, requesting anonymity in order to speak candidly. “I don’t remember having a problem this unique in previous cycles — where you have incumbent so ripe for the taking and, at this point, no candidates able to get the job done.”
Last month, Cramer announced he would run for re-election to his statewide, at-large House seat, rebuffing months of personal lobbying by President Trump and senior Senate Republicans.
Party officials were content to settle for Campbell, a businessman and farmer with telegenic, chiseled features who interviewed “off the charts” and appeared a good bet to defeat the vulnerable Heitkamp in heavily Republican and pro-Trump North Dakota. In 2016, the president defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton by 36 percentage points.
Then Republicans in Washington reviewed the opposition research on Campbell that parties routinely commission on their own candidates in preparation for a major campaign. The red flags were glaring, leading them reopen the effort to recruit a top tier candidate; if not Cramer, then someone.
Gary Emineth, the former chairman of the North Dakota Republican Party, is also running in the June 12 primary, but top GOP officials in Washington don’t view him as a viable alternative.
In a statement emailed to the Washington Examiner, the Campbell campaign dismissed doubts about its candidate as unfounded and likened the machinations of Republican leaders in Washington as the same misguided meddling by the party establishment directed at Trump in the 2016 presidential primary.
"It's no surprise that many of the same D.C. insiders who never thought President Trump could win are pitching opposition research against Tom Campbell, who has pledged to be a strong ally of President Trump. The truth is many of these issues have already been reported on in North Dakota and voters there can see right through them,” Campbell campaign spokesman Mike Schrimpf said.
But top Republicans opposed to Campbell’s nomination are adamant about the risks he poses to the party as it seeks to pad it’s 51-49 Senate majority. Even in a state that is not just overwhelmingly Republican, but hospitable to Trump, they are convinced Heitkamp would beat him, despite a voting record that is largely at odds with the president’s agenda.
What bothers these Republicans? A party operative forwarded the Washington Examiner these bullet points from the opposition research on Campbell, along with accompanying explanatory information:
- Campbell’s bank has foreclosed on North Dakota farmers.
- Campbell was sued for fraud over the life insurance policy he obtained on his mother.
- In 2015, then-state Sen. Campbell co-sponsored a bill easing licensing requirements for industrial hemp production in North Dakota.
- Campbell shares intentions of growing hemp on his own farm.
“Campbell's bank has foreclosed on a number of ND farmers. All Democrats need to do is put one on camera and he's toast. And that's before they tell everyone how he lied on a life insurance application to get rich off of his own mother's death,” said the Republican operative who provided the information.
Heitkamp begins 2018 as a strong incumbent.
She narrowly won her first term in 2012 despite fighting against a Republican tide in a presidential race that saw GOP nominee Mitt Romney carry North Dakota by nearly 20 points.
But Kelly Armstrong, chairman of the North Dakota GOP, rejected warnings about Campbell’s possible weaknesses, declaring him qualified and well positioned to win in the fall. Kelly said he hasn’t heard any complaints about Campbell from party leaders in Washington.
“We’re comfortable moving forward with the guys we have. Right now we’ve got two candidates that are working hard,” he said.
Republicans are holding out hope that Cramer changes his mind. The congressman’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but some GOP operatives believe there’s a chance it could happen.
The White House; McConnell; Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee; as well as influential GOP donors are all calling Cramer and urging him to reconsider.
They’re optimistic that he might be convinced by the improving generic ballot numbers for Republicans and public opinion polls showing rising popularity for the federal tax overhaul that cleared Congress in December without any Democratic votes.
“Cramer should take another look at this race. This is his chance to step up to the table and further support Trump,” said Dan Eberhart, an energy executive who donates to Republican candidates. “I’m not going to throw events for [Campbell] like I would for Cramer, at least not until he shows he’s competitive.”