Sen. Heidi Heitkamp announced her long-expected reelection campaign Wednesday, one day after attending dinner at the White House and one week after President Trump visited her home state and praised the incumbent.
As Trump inexplicably grants the North Dakota Democrat political cover in a state that delivered his fourth-largest victory margin, the field to face Heitkamp is far from settled.
GOP state Sen. Tom Campbell jumped into the race last month, giving Republicans their first major candidate, while Rep. Kevin Cramer is still leaving strategists guessing about whether he will give up the safe, at-large House seat to run a grueling challenge to Heitkamp.
In an interview, Campbell pledged to stay in the Senate race, regardless of Cramer’s plans, but noted that Cramer was supportive of his campaign when the two spoke ahead of his announcement.
“I think he’s probably leaning toward staying where he’s at,” Campbell said. “But that is not what he said. He just isn’t ready, and I was ready, and the time was right, so I jumped in. We can’t wait any longer because it’s a big race.”
Cramer’s office declined to make him available for an interview. But a source familiar with the congressman’s thinking recently told U.S. News & World Report that Cramer appears disinclined to forfeit his safe seat for the Senate race.
There are a handful of other potential Republican candidates, including state Rep. Rick Becker and two businesswomen, Kathy Neset and Tammy Miller. None would begin the race nearly as well-known as the congressman.
“Any of those candidates are probably starting with under 10 percent name recognition, so they just have to get out early,” said state Sen. Kelly Armstrong, chair of the North Dakota Republican Party. “I would be shocked if Campbell was the only candidate by the time this all shakes out.”
As Republicans consider campaigns, Heitkamp last week won notable praise from Trump when he called her up to the stage at a tax-reform event at an oil refinery in Mandan, North Dakota and told the crowd she was a “good woman.” Days later, she had dinner with Trump and five other senators, including two fellow vulnerable Democrats, to discuss the issue.
Democrats expected Heitkamp to run again, long before she made it official. The first-term Democrat raised $1.3 million in the second fundraising quarter and had $3 million in cash on hand at the end of June.
“Senator Heitkamp has always been somebody who’s been more diligent about doing her job,” J.B. Poersch, head of the Chuck Schumer-aligned Senate Majority PAC, said last week. “I think she’s focused on what she should be.”
Meanwhile, Campbell, whose district is outside Grand Forks in the northeast corner of the state, is working to boost his profile. Since entering the race in mid-August, he has run several TV ads, with plans for nine total to air over the next few months.
Campbell originally had intended to run for whichever seat Cramer didn’t. But he said the expected cost of the race, as well as Heitkamp’s early fundraising advantage, pushed him to kick off his bid sooner.
Campbell, who is personally wealthy, said it is too early to forecast how much he would self-fund but noted his fundraising efforts so far have been “above budget.” Reports for the third quarter, which ends Sept. 30, are due in mid-October.
Cramer’s fundraising dropped from $322,000 in the first quarter to $226,000 in the second, a possible sign that he is planning to stay put.
Earlier this year, Cramer emphasized to National Journal that he would evaluate where he could serve most effectively. But, he noted then, “there’s a lot about the Senate that doesn’t appeal to me, quite honestly.”
Cramer’s decision will directly affect at least one potential candidate’s plans. Neset, who said she first was approached in the late spring about a bid, said she supports Cramer “100 percent” and would not run if he does.
“I have no knowledge if he is going to—only sincere hope that he does,” she said in an interview.
Becker, who has met with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Club for Growth, and FreedomWorks, said Cramer’s announcement either way would help him evaluate the lay of the land but ultimately would not dictate his plans. After saying earlier this year that he planned to decide by summer’s end, Becker now has no strict timeline in mind.
For now, North Dakota Republicans are giving Cramer the space to make his decision.
“Senator Heitkamp is a formidable opponent,” Armstrong said. “I think, quite frankly, that intrigues Kevin, and that doesn’t scare him. But I also think he enjoys being in the House.”
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