The North Dakota Senate race may not be on the top of your mind right now.
But what’s happening in North Dakota on Friday could mean the difference between Republicans maintaining control of the Senate in the 2018 midterms and losing that control.
After initially saying “no” to a challenge to Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer has changed his mind and will formally enter the race Friday evening. (Cramer’s entrance into the race moves it to the “Toss Up” category in CNN’s ratings.)
That’s a piece of very good news for Senate Republicans who, candidly, needed a little bit of a pick-me-up. Despite an overwhelming numbers edge – 26 Democratic seats up as compared to just eight GOP ones – Republicans have struggled to land top-tier recruits in some states President Donald Trump won overwhelmingly in 2016 and to clear out primaries in others. (Another tidbit of good news for Senate Republicans: Florida Gov. Rick Scott appears to be moving closer to a challenge to Sen. Bill Nelson.)
Cramer not running – which he announced just after the new year – was seen as another major blow to Republicans. A sitting congressman, who represents the entire state, unwilling to challenge a Democratic incumbent in a state Trump carried by a stunning 36 points in November 2016? Not a good sign.
Cramer’s no-go was not only a symbolic defeat for Senate Republicans but also a practical one. The remaining Republicans in the field – led by state Sen. Tom Campbell – were little known and lightly regarded. And when word began to leak out that the opposition research file against Campbell was roughly the length of a Stephen King novel, the situation turned desperate for Senate Republicans.
Scenarios exist where Republicans hold the Senate without winning in North Dakota, but not to challenge a first-term incumbent like Heitkamp who won with just 50% of the vote would have been inexcusable.
Now Republicans don’t need to worry about that nightmare coming true. Cramer is a proven vote-getter – he’s held the state’s at-large House seat since 2012 and spent nine years on the state’s Public Service Commission before that – and ended 2017 with nearly $1 million in the bank. (Heitkamp had $4.4 million on hand at that time.)
That doesn’t mean Cramer is pure gold as a candidate. Cramer set off some GOP alarms last March when he denounced Democratic women wearing white pantsuits to protest President Trump’s treatment of women. He said his female colleagues were “poorly dressed” in “bad-looking white pantsuits.”
But he is far better option than what Senate Republicans had when the week started. A lot better.
With Cramer now in, the lone major recruiting problem for Republicans is in Montana, where Sen. Jon Tester is seeking a third term. Tester won reelection in 2012 with 49% and in 2016 Trump won the state by 20 points. The best known candidate in the field at he moment is state Auditor Matt Rosendale. Rosendale ran for Congress in 2012 – he finished third n the GOP primary behind now-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke – and was elected to his current job in 2016. He ended 2017 with less than $500,000 in the bank as compared to $6.3 million for Tester.
Aside from Montana and North Dakota, there are three other states Trump won by double digits where Democratic incumbents are running for reelection: Indiana, Missouri and West Virginia. In two – Indiana and West Virginia – Republicans are in the midst of very competitive (and likely costly) primary fights. In Missouri, state Attorney General Josh Hawley has largely cleared the field, although his comments about sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s led to some raised eyebrows recently.
The only two Republican-held states in real danger are in Nevada, where Sen. Dean Heller is seeking a second term and Arizona where Sen. Jeff Flake’s retirement has led to a free-for-all primary that includes controversial sheriff Joe Arpaio.