For new Rep. Kevin Cramer, the fourth time was the charm. A former state GOP chairman and strong social conservative, he ran for North Dakota’s at-large seat three times before 2012, most recently in 2010, and won this time despite failing to receive the state party’s backing.
Cramer, the oldest of five children, grew up in Kindred, southwest of Fargo. His father, a “fix-it guy” who didn’t graduate from high school, was an electricity lineman, and his mother worked multiple jobs, from caring for seniors to pumping gas. Throughout high school, Cramer worked for the same electric cooperative as his father.
Cramer attended the Lutheran Church-owned Concordia College in Minnesota, where he became a pre-seminary student majoring in social work. But he soon found his politics and philosophy to be too conservative for the church. His time there coincided with Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and he said he was inspired by Reagan, a “joyful conservative.”
After graduating in 1983, he joined his first political campaign, working for an unsuccessful Republican tax commissioner candidate in North Dakota in 1984. He then joined Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Andrews’ 1986 bid for reelection; when Andrews lost to Democrat Kent Conrad, Cramer went to work for the state Republican Party.
In just a few years, Cramer rose from field worker to executive director in 1990. The following year, at age 30, he was the youngest ever to be named state party chairman. As a self-professed leader of a GOP “youth movement,” he was courted by national party bigwigs including then-Vice President Dan Quayle. Looking back, Cramer said in an interview, he was “naïve enough” to be “quite bold—you might say reckless, even.”
Cramer left the chairmanship in 1992 to become state tourism director, and it was from that perch that he first ran for the at-large House seat in 1996, due partly to persuasion from then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, a North Dakota native. Cramer lost that year to incumbent Rep. Earl Pomeroy, 43 percent to 55 percent.
After the loss, Cramer became the state’s economic development director. He was drafted to run for Congress a second time in 1998, again losing to Pomeroy, with 41 percent of the vote. He now calls that run a political mistake that eventually cost him the state party’s endorsement when he ran for the seat again in 2010. That year, he dropped out before the GOP primary.
In addition to working for a foundation offering faith-based training for students at the University of Mary, where he received a master’s degree in management in 2003, Cramer has spent most of the last decade as one of North Dakota’s public service commissioners, helping to oversee an energy-driven boom in the state economy.
But when Republican Rep. Rick Berg vacated the House seat for a Senate run in 2012, Cramer decided to run again, spurning the state party’s endorsement in favor of taking his campaign directly to the primary. He managed to narrowly edge out party-backed candidate Brian Kalk, a fellow public service commissioner, in a six-person contest. That set him up to run against Democrat Pam Gulleson, a former state House member, in the general election. Cramer ran as a strong social conservative, saying on his campaign website, “I hope you know that my public service is an extension of my service to Christ.”
Earlier in the year, the Sierra Club and the Dakota Resource Council filed a lawsuit alleging that Cramer and Kalk should be disqualified from regulating coal since both had taken campaign donations from the industry in their House races. Gulleson sought to make an issue of the lawsuit, but the state’s pronounced Republican tilt gave the win to Cramer.
Matt Berman contributed to this article.