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Cramer says Heitkamp's voting record helped North Dakotans contrast candidates

Senator-elect Kevin Cramer speaks at a post-election press conference on Wednesday morning in Bismarck. Cramer answered questions on a wide range of topics but stated he would be back in Washington next week to work on finalizing a farm bill among other items in his last days as North Dakota's lone congressman. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK — Republican senator-elect Kevin Cramer boiled his Tuesday night victory down to one major factor: Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s voting record.

It was something that the incumbent senator didn’t have when she defeated then-congressman Rick Berg by fewer than 3,000 votes six years ago. But through months of campaigning, Cramer made his case that Heitkamp wasn’t as moderate as her reputation suggested.

“Rick did not have the advantage I had of running against somebody with a six-year voting record,” he said in a news conference at the North Dakota Republican Party headquarters in Bismarck Wednesday, Nov. 7. “Even $30 million can’t push a bad message, it just makes a bad message louder.”

Cramer, a Republican congressman, defeated Heitkamp by a 55 percent to 44 percent margin in complete but unofficial results, according to the secretary of state’s website. On Wednesday, he discussed transition plans and his preferred committee assignments while reflecting on the bruising and expensive campaign.

The victory helped Republicans keep control of the Senate as Democrats won a majority of House seats. In North Dakota, Cramer’s victory meant Republicans will hold every statewide elected office while maintaining a supermajority in the state Legislature.

Berg, who’s now the state Republican Party chairman, agreed with Cramer’s assessment that Heitkamp’s voting record helped contrast the candidates. Berg was only a first-term congressman when he ran for the Senate in 2012, while Cramer has three terms under his belt.

“The disadvantage of being in the House is that you have to run every two years. The advantage is people are used to voting for you,” Berg said.

The race also appeared to reaffirm President Donald Trump’s popularity in North Dakota, where he won by nearly 36 percentage points two years ago. He campaigned for Cramer twice in Fargo after cajoling him into taking on Heitkamp.

Trump told Cramer that he “knew it was going to be easy,” Cramer said Wednesday.

“It wasn’t easy,” Cramer said with a laugh.

Kent Conrad, a former Democratic senator whose seat Heitkamp won in 2012, heaped praise on his successor for what he described as a long list of accomplishments. But he said Tuesday’s vote showed North Dakotans wanted to “stick with this president.”

Cramer won 41 of the state’s 53 counties Tuesday, with Heitkamp finding support largely in the eastern edge of the state. She won Cass County, the most populous in the state, by a wider margin this year than she did in 2012 but fell further behind in Burleigh County.

And unlike 2012, Heitkamp won just one county in the western half of the state: Sioux County, home of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Overall, she won half as many counties Tuesday as she did in 2012.

Meanwhile, Cramer carried several oil-rich western North Dakota counties more comfortably than Berg did. In Williams, home of Williston, he garnered 73 percent of the vote compared to 67 percent for Berg. In Stark County, he earned 74 percent of the vote to Berg’s 64 percent.

Cramer cited Heitkamp’s opposition to repealing a methane emissions rule and to a 20-week abortion ban as votes that didn’t play well in the western area of the state. Heitkamp relied on protections for pre-existing medical conditions and trade as major campaign issues.

Dickinson’s Rich Wardner, the Republican majority leader in the state senate, said Heitkamp wasn't seen as hostile to the oil and gas industry in western North Dakota, given her efforts to repeal the ban on oil exports. But he credited Cramer for making himself accessible to constituents outside the campaign cycle.

“People think they know him. They have a relationship with him,” Wardner said. “It’s not through the newspaper or through the television set.”

Cramer also flipped a cluster of counties in the northeast and east-central part of the state.

Democrat Mac Schneider, who lost his bid for the U.S. House Tuesday, said the political split between urban and “ruby red” rural areas reflects a concerning national trend. Heitkamp herself acknowledged during her concession speech that she "took a thumpin' in the rural areas."

Schneider expressed optimism for Democrats who won legislative races Tuesday but didn’t downplay the consequences of losing the party’s star.

“You can’t replace a leader like Heidi Heitkamp,” he said.

Heitkamp was not planning media interviews Wednesday, a campaign spokeswoman said.

“We may have lost an election, but we haven’t lost our enthusiasm for the state of North Dakota,” Heitkamp said Tuesday night, before making a vow on behalf of Democrats: “We will not give up.”

Cramer said the two candidates hadn’t spoken as of late Wednesday morning. But he thanked Heitkamp for her service and said she is “tireless on the things that are important to her.”

The two have unfinished business in Washington, D.C., however, as both were tapped to negotiate a new farm bill. Cramer was optimistic that the legislation will be completed before he’s sworn in as a senator.

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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