Rep. Kevin Cramer will seek re-election to the U.S. House, declining a matchup against Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp this year and reshaping a race that national Republicans have hoped will boost their slim majority.
Cramer, a third-term congressman, made the announcement Thursday, Jan. 11, on radio to KFYR talk show host Scott Hennen.
Though Cramer had publicly weighed a Senate campaign for months, his decision to instead pursue re-election in the House will mean a dramatically different set of races. In the Senate race, Heitkamp is left with one confirmed Republican challenger: farmer and state Sen. Tom Campbell of Grafton. In the House race, hopefuls will now contend with an incumbent who has been a name in North Dakota politics for years.
In a Thursday interview, Cramer described last week’s Oval Office meeting with President Donald Trump and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. Cramer said he, his wife and his 10-year-old son heard the president promise support for a Senate run.
“We just felt like this was not the time for us to do that,” Cramer said, citing a need to spend time with his family. “That was the first priority. The next priority was looking at North Dakota, leaving the House seat to a freshman, while running the risk of not winning the Senate seat.”
Cramer was quick to say he could have won the race -- he was encouraged to run in December 2016 by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell -- but that “these things are never lay-ups.” He added that key retirements in the House are building his clout as a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
“(Trump) wanted me to have no doubt that he was going to be in my corner. … (But) I’m also realistic enough to know that the president doesn’t jump on Air Force One and run to Tioga for you,” Cramer said. “I also reassured him that I’m not the only person who can win this race.”
Trump won by 36 points in North Dakota, where Heitkamp is the only Democrat elected to statewide office.
Cramer’s announcement came as the election season began to heat up with accusations of unethical behavior. On Monday, North Dakota Democrats asked for an ethics investigation into a tweet from Cramer’s official account that discussed campaign polling, a move Cramer called “petty.”
Democrats also have criticized Cramer for reimbursing himself and paying family members through campaign funds. However, Cramer has defended the payments for campaign work and said there's nothing illegal or unethical about them.
“Congressman Cramer chose to forego a tough U.S. Senate race against a popular incumbent with a strong record of reaching across the aisle, building consensus, putting North Dakota first, and getting results,” North Dakota Democratic-NPL Executive Director Scott McNeil said in a statement.
CNN reported last year that controversial remarks from Cramer had spooked GOP officials, who wondered if he was the best choice for the Senate race. Cramer had said there was “validity” to a controversial White House analogy between Adolf Hitler and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. He also criticized Democratic women wearing white to a Trump speech to Congress in solidarity with the women’s suffrage movement and to show Trump their support of various women’s issues. When pressed on Thursday, Cramer questioned the story’s credibility and denied that his prior comments affected his decision.
A former member of the state’s Public Service Commission and state Republican Party chairman, Cramer was first elected to the U.S. House in 2012. He won the seat vacated by Rick Berg, who narrowly lost to Heitkamp in that year’s Senate race.
Cramer has since been re-elected by wide margins twice, tallying 69 percent of the vote in the 2016 race. This year, he faces a challenge from Democrat Ben Hanson, a former Fargo state legislator.
“It doesn’t really change anything with Kevin in the race,” Hanson said in response to Cramer’s announcement. “I’ve been critical of the way Kevin has conducted himself in office, and I will continue to be, because we need someone in office who will represent folks here in the state.”
Heitkamp said she’s not concerned about whether she will face Cramer, Campbell or other candidates.
“In any political campaign that I am in, I never think about running for or against someone,” she said. “I think about pursuing the job, and this is a job that we’ve worked very hard to represent North Dakota, to represent rural communities and really all of rural America.”
Cramer’s declaration leaves Campbell alone in the GOP’s Senate primary field. He released a statement calling Cramer a “dear friend and a committed conservative,” and he seized the opportunity to encourage Republicans to back his campaign.
“With today’s announcement, now is the time for North Dakota conservatives to focus squarely on defeating Senator Heitkamp this November, and I am committed to doing exactly that,” he said in a statement.
Several others have publicly declined a Senate run, including state Rep. Rick Becker of Bismarck. Berg said Thursday he’s not running either.
State Republican Party Chairman Kelly Armstrong, a state senator from Dickinson, said “I think there are a lot of people who are surprised” by Cramer’s decision, but he was still confident in the party’s chances of unseating Heitkamp. He was unaware of others who are weighing a run.
“Obviously Kevin had universal name recognition and he’s won elections on the statewide ballot before,” Armstrong said, before pointing to Trump’s popularity here and the state’s conservative nature. “The things line up very well for the NDGOP.”
Grand Forks Herald reporter April Baumgarten contributed to this report.