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Armstrong wins endorsement, Campbell promises primary fight

Kelly Armstrong is joined by his wife, Kjersti, daughter, Anna Constance, and son, Elias Patrick, on stage at the North Dakota Republican Party convention for the endorsement for Congress Saturday, April 7, at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks. (Eric Hylden / Forum News Service)1 / 3
Tom Campbell makes a point during his speech for the Republican Congressional candidate at Saturday's state ND Republican convention in Grand Forks at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks. (Eric Hylden / Forum News Service)2 / 3
Supporters of Kelly Armstrong whoop it up as it becomes apparent that he was building a large lead in the delegate count at Saturday's North Dakota Republican convention. (Eric Hylden / Forum News Service)3 / 3

GRAND FORKS—North Dakota Republicans endorsed Dickinson state Sen. Kelly Armstrong for Congress here Saturday, April 7, but he will face a rematch in two months before moving on to November's general election.

Armstrong defeated fellow state Sen. Tom Campbell of Grafton on the first ballot during the party's state convention, earning the support of 847 delegates to Campbell's 480. But minutes later, Campbell confirmed he would run in the June 12 primary.

"We're going to give a chance (to) all the rest of the Republicans in the state ... to see what's happening," he said.

Armstrong's victory came less than a month after North Dakota Democrats picked Mac Schneider, a former state Senate minority leader, as their candidate for the U.S. House. Like the Republican convention, that race featured multiple candidates vying for the party's backing.

Armstrong and Campbell were among a handful of candidates at the Alerus Center, where Marine Corps veteran Tiffany Abentroth came in third with 28 votes.

Abentroth's campaign said she would run in the primary as well.

Armstrong said he was expecting Campbell's primary election challenge—Campbell hadn't ruled it out in the days leading up to the convention—but said his campaign won't change.

"Over the last couple of days, it just really felt like we were gaining a groundswell," he said. "The one thing you can't manufacture is momentum."

Campbell was soundly defeated despite committing $745,000 from his own pocket by the end of last year and having a monthslong headstart on the campaign trail. He shifted from the U.S. Senate contest to the House race once Rep. Kevin Cramer decided to challenge Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp.

Armstrong resigned as state GOP chairman before jumping into the House race in late February, the week after Cramer's decision.

Both Armstrong and Campbell entered the Legislature in 2013. But Armstrong chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee last session, part of a resume that his supporters cited as evidence of his effectiveness as a lawmaker.

"In my time in the state Senate, I have worked tirelessly to advance legislation that's important to North Dakotans," he told delegates. "And I've gotten results."

Armstrong is a partner in a law firm but hasn't taken a criminal case since 2011. He's vice president of his family's business, Armstrong Corp., which has interests ranging from oil and gas to agriculture.

Leading up to the convention, Armstrong criticized Campbell for "buying a vote" by covering some delegates' fees, an episode that Campbell complained had been "blown way out of proportion."

Campbell, who owns a large potato farming operation with his two brothers, has painted himself as an outsider to the political establishment. One of his backers said he's "not part of the Republican swamp."

Campbell furthered that argument Saturday in his speech to delegates, which focused on his "self-made" farming background.

"We will never accomplish anything if we continue to send career politicians and lawyers to Washington," he said.

In a statement, Schneider said his "highest loyalties" would be to North Dakotans and the Constitution rather than President Donald Trump's administration.

Republicans had a high-profile primary election contest just two years ago, when Doug Burgum defeated the GOP-endorsed candidate, longtime Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, in that year's governor's race.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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