BISMARCK, North Dakota — In North Dakota, where Donald Trump won in a landslide last year, Republicans’ lone Senate candidate is a little-known state lawmaker and potato farmer from a remote town closer to the Canadian border than the state capital.
While established Republicans and business leaders in other states Trump carried are running to topple Democratic senators, the GOP is struggling to land a big name in North Dakota to run against Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp in 2018.
So far in the state, which Trump won by 36 percentage points, the only declared GOP candidate for US Senate is state Senator Tom Campbell, unknown to many despite spending nearly $500,000, most of it his own money, on television ads to introduce himself.
In fact, his main claim to fame is that he defended a former White House press secretary’s remark that Adolf Hitler “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”
The best-known prospect, at-large US Representative Kevin Cramer, has been reticent about the Senate, and would-be female challengers to Heitkamp have displayed no interest.
Rich Wardner, the Republican majority leader in the North Dakota Senate, described Campbell as overmatched in a primary with Cramer.
“Inexperience will work against him,” Wardner said.
Cramer recently formed a new House campaign fundraising committee. Although there’s plenty of time for him to pivot to a Senate race, some home-state Republicans prefer that he remain in the House.
“He’s building leadership there,” said Dave Blair, a 61-year-old Republican-leaning business consultant from Bismarck. “I will definitely support him if he stays there.”
Yet Cramer’s propensity for off-script remarks embarrasses Bismarck independent Jim Leary.
In April, Cramer defended White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s comment that Adolf Hitler “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” despite Hitler’s ordering millions of Jews killed by poisonous gas. Spicer was addressing Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians during an airstrike in April.
Cramer has scoffed at critics of those and other comments, saying Spicer’s remark was “not without some validity” and calling it “a very poor illustration even if technically true.”
“He’s very confident about what he thinks, but I’m not so sure he has the facts to back them up,” said Leary, a 77-year-old former state employee. “I just don’t like him.”
Jean Fortune, of Bismarck, has no problem with Cramer’s sometimes off-script comments, such as his critique of women in Congress as “poorly dressed” and wearing “bad-looking white pant suits” during Trump’s speech to Congress in February.
Cramer’s candor, like Trump’s, is refreshing, Fortune said. “I feel like I know him,” the 88-year-old retiree said of Cramer.
An early Trump supporter and energy policy adviser to his campaign, Cramer said the president “strongly encouraged” him in an October telephone conversation to run for Senate.
Cramer has also suggested that the fate of tax legislation could affect his decision, noting last month that “political survival depends on us doing this.”
He argued that he can quickly raise the money to compete with Heitkamp, despite her $3.7 million cash on hand compared with his $824,000.
“I have the luxury of time,” Cramer told The Associated Press earlier this month. “I’m going to use all the time I can to make the right decision.”
Fargo-based businesswoman Tammy Miller, courted last fall, opted not to run this month. Kathy Neset, an oil field consultant and State Board of Higher Education member, decided the same in November. Former Representatives Rick Berg hasn’t ruled out a Heitkamp rematch, but his narrow loss to her in 2012 would likely weigh against him.
Fortune called Heitkamp “a very nice lady” but said she would “never support her because she’s a Democrat.”
The slow start has raised some worries that the GOP is ceding the early advantage to the well-funded Heitkamp in a place seemingly ripe for Republicans’ quest to expand their majority yet surprisingly central to Democrats’ effort to hold them off. She is one of 10 Democrats seeking re-election next year in a state the president carried.
“I’m not sure that our party fully grasps or understands the magnitude of a campaign against Heidi Heitkamp,” said former governor Ed Schafer, a Republican. “We’re acting like we’re overly confident of a win.”
In West Virginia, where Trump won by more than 40 percentage points over Democrat Hillary Clinton, Representative Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrissey, both Republicans, are vying to challenge Democratic Senator Joe Manchin. In Missouri, Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley has gathered steam, and Trump’s public support, in a crowded GOP field for the chance to face Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill.
Similar primaries are taking shape in Indiana and Montana, where Trump rolled, as well as in states he won more narrowly, such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Whoever emerges would face a Democratic moderate who has voted along party lines on recent big pieces of legislation.
In 2015, Heitkamp, a former gas company lawyer, partnered with Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska to shepherd the repeal of a 40-year-old ban on US crude oil exports, important to oil-rich North Dakota.
Heitkamp enjoyed a couple of boosts from Trump himself since his election. He invited her a year ago to New York to discuss a Cabinet post. In September, she joined him on Air Force One to Bismarck, where he promoted the tax bill, and appeared alongside him on stage.
While Heitkamp’s voting record is markedly less partisan than that of many of her Democratic colleagues, she voted with them this month against the tax bill, as she did in July against dismantling Barack Obama’s health care law.