Kevin Cramer Might Be North Dakota's Next U.S. Senator


Here’s a bold prediction not for the current election cycle, which is shaping up to be something of a snoozer, but rather the next one where things could get interesting: Rep. Kevin Cramer, who will be running for a third term in office in 2016, will run for the U.S. Senate in 2018. And he will win.

I say that not because I have any particular inside knowledge, but because it seems obvious to me based on the facts.

Which isn’t to say that I haven’t spoken to Cramer about 2018. He demurred on the question, giving a rote response about how he’s focused on doing his job now and running a strong campaign in 2016, but he did share with me some polling data he commissioned showing very strong approval numbers in the state.

Again, this is polling Cramer himself commissioned and chose to share publicly no doubt to serve his own purposes, so take it with a big grain of salt. That said, if we take the approval numbers at face value, they’re impressive (full data here):


Overall Cramer has a more than 67 percent favorability rating. He’s over 60 percent favorability with independents and Libertarians, and even among Democrats Cramer has more than 40 percent approval. Cramer seems to be particularly popular with younger voters, scoring over 73 percent with the under 35 demographic, and despite Cramer’s staunch pro-life position and the left’s “war on women” rhetoric Cramer is actually even more popular with women than men.

If we believe these numbers – and I’ll leave it up to you decide how much veracity they have – they look good for Cramer. But these aren’t the only facts we have supporting a potential 2018 run.

It seems unlikely that Cramer will face any real opposition from Democrats in 2016. Heck, Cramer’s 2014 opponent George Sinner, a Democrat state Senator from Fargo, sounded downright depressed about his party’s candidate recruitment efforts in a recent radio interview (audio here). Sinner actually suggested that Democrats might not even bother to nominate anyone in some top-of-the-ticket races like Governor or Senator in 2016. “Someone has to do it. I don’t know who that someone would be,” he said.

“The Democrats may not nominate somebody. That’s a real possibility,” he added.

Sinner didn’t mention the House race, but at this point does Cramer really look any more vulnerable than Senator John Hoeven (who is on the ballot in 2016)? Or whoever the Republican candidate will be in a wide-open gubernatorial race?

Cramer will be the odds-on favorite to win re-election in 2016 regardless of who, if anyone, Democrats pit against him. So could he be blamed for thinking about taking the momentum of three straight U.S. House race victories into a 2018 Senate campaign?

Of course not, though if he runs he would presumably be facing the Democrats’ strongest candidate in Senator Heidi Heitkamp, the incumbent. But “strong candidate” is a relative term. Since 2012 when both Cramer and Heitkamp were elected the former seems to have been gaining popularity in the state while the latter seems to be losing it.

Cramer’s key to success has been a staunch position of openness with voters. He has become almost ubiquitous on the state’s call-in talk radio show, gladly fielding everything from sincere questions asked earnest constituents to zingers thrown at him by partisan cranks. Cramer has also set the gold standard for open town hall events.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]Heitkamp campaigned as an effective sort of moderate who could go to Washington and get things done. But she hasn’t governed as a moderate, nor has she been all that effective.[/mks_pullquote]

“By far, Cramer sponsors most town hall Q&As among ND members of Congress,” reported the Fargo Forum in 2013. 

“Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) participated in the most town halls in 2014 with 81 events,” reported government watchdog group LegisStorm in 2014.

According to LegisStorm, Cramer again led all members of Congress for holding town halls through September of 2015.

Recently the Grand Forks Herald editorial board touted Cramer’s openness with the public, suggesting that the region’s other members of Congress should emulate it.

Meanwhile, Senator Heitkamp has been perceived as being something less than open with both the public and the media. Heitkamp’s aggressive staff ensures she gets her name into lots of headlines and news articles, but journalists and other media types I’ve spoken to talk of the difficulty in booking Heitkamp for interviews when the subject matter might be uncomfortable.

Heitkamp is notoriously thin skinned – eschewing open public appearances for tightly controlled mediums like on Facebook or her brother’s left-wing talk radio show – and increasingly she’s in a perilous political position.

Heitkamp campaigned as an effective sort of moderate who could go to Washington and get things done. But she hasn’t governed as a moderate, nor has she been all that effective.

Heitkamp campaigned against the filibuster and for the Keystone XL pipeline, but so far progress on the pipeline remains mired in the obstructionism of Heitkamp’s own party and Heitkamp herself has cast one vote after another for filibusters. Heitkamp cast a key vote for a diplomatic deal with Iran that’s hugely unpopular with North Dakotans, and so far she’s been totally ineffective in making progress toward lifting the nation’s ban on exporting oil, something of huge economic importance to North Dakota.

Pile all this on top of the fact that Heitkamp won election in 2012 by only the narrowest of margins, and that Republicans are quietly touting polling showing a sharp decline in Heitkamp’s popularity in the state (I haven’t been made privy to the polling data), and it adds up to what has to look like an inviting target for Cramer.

But I have seen some polling data from Cramer, who paid for it and gave it to me

I think Cramer, a formidable and aggressive campaigner, will run against Heitkamp in 2018. In fact, I think at this point there’s a greater likelihood that Heitkamp won’t even bother running for re-election given the way events are unfolding.

The 2018 campaign season is still a long ways away, and things can certainly change between now and then, but right now it looks like the Democrats only real winner candidate in North Dakota is increasingly looking like a bad bet.