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GOP’s Cramer House seat gamble pays off with Senate win

November 7, 2018
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Republican Senate candidate Kevin Cramer, flanked by his wife Chris, right and other members of his family, talks to supporters after he defeated Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Bismarck, N.D. (AP Photo/Bruce Crummy)

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — It took a pair of personal appeals from President Donald Trump for Republican Kevin Cramer to gamble his hard-won congressional seat for a U.S. Senate bid against one of the state’s most well-known and charismatic politicians.

Cramer defeated Democratic U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp on Tuesday after a long and contentious campaign in the conservative state by maximizing his support of Trump to help overcome Heitkamp’s big money advantage.

Cramer’s victory helped Republicans retain their Senate majority, just nine months after Trump made a second personal appeal to get him into the race. Once he got in, the three-term congressman made his support for Trump a pillar of his campaign.

“We made the decision to run for the Senate and never once looked back,” he told a cheering crowd during his victory speech at Bismarck State College.

Cramer — who called the win “the honor of my life” — said Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called to congratulate him before he took the state.

Heitkamp, who relied on an everywoman charm to help win her first term, worked hard the next six years to avoid alienating North Dakota’s right-leaning electorate. But the state’s makeup had Heitkamp atop everyone’s list of endangered Senate incumbents throughout the campaign.

Heitkamp, who served just one term, said in a statement Tuesday that she brought common sense to the Senate and thought every day about how she could “fight for rural America.”

Before Cramer had stepped forward to take on Heitkamp, a popular figure known simply as “Heidi” to many in her small state, the only Republican to challenge her was a little-known potato farmer and state lawmaker.

Heitkamp, a former state attorney general and gas company executive, won her first term in 2012 by fewer than 3,000 votes. With Democrats badly needing to keep her seat for any shot at a Senate majority, she raised more than $27 million for her re-election. That was almost five times as much as Cramer.

“We were outspent 5-to-1,” Cramer said during his victory speech. “When you put up a bunch of money to push a bad message, it only makes it worse, not better.”

The 57-year-old Cramer has spent most of his life in public service. He began his career as director and chairman of the state Republican Party. He has served as state tourism director, state economic development director, and as a member of the state Public Service Commission.

He ran unsuccessfully for the House three times before breaking through in 2012.

Trump, who carried the state by 36 points in 2016 and remains popular in North Dakota, loomed large over the race. Heitkamp spent much of the campaign playing up her independence from her own party, reminding voters she had largely backed North Dakota’s corporate interests on energy and that she had voted to confirm most of Trump’s Cabinet and judicial nominees.

Heitkamp attacked Cramer as an unthinking yes man for Trump, and sought to raise questions about the administration’s trade strategy, which she argued put North Dakota’s agricultural economy at high risk. She said Cramer didn’t belong in the Senate unless he was willing to “protect and defend the people of this state against bad administration policies.”

Cramer struck back by arguing that Heitkamp wasn’t the bipartisan senator she claimed to be.

He often cited her past support of Hillary Clinton and her vote against the tax cuts that Trump championed. He pointed out her votes against several other Republican-sponsored bills, including allowing states to deny federal funds for abortion providers, banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, and a repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s tax on high-cost health insurance plans.

And above all, he went after Heitkamp for her vote against Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, a risky decision given Trump’s popularity. Heitkamp cited Kavanaugh’s temperament, and sought to cast it as further evidence of her independence.

But Cramer said it went against the grain of conservative North Dakota.

“Being an independent isn’t an excuse for being wrong,” Cramer said.

Campaign cash flooded in for Heitkamp during and after the Kavanaugh period — an astounding $12 million in 17 days — but polls also showed a widening lead for Cramer.

The Kavanaugh issue also was at the heart of a damaging error by Heitkamp’s campaign just weeks before the election, when she ran a newspaper ad attacking Cramer that improperly identified some survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. Heitkamp repeatedly apologized for the ad after several women complained that they either weren’t victims of abuse or hadn’t consented to having their names used.

Health care was another prominent issue, with Heitkamp arguing that Cramer would support Republican policies that would undermine care for many, particularly people with pre-existing conditions. Cramer argued the current health care system is broken and promised not to support any legislation that would cut coverage for pre-existing conditions.

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For AP’s complete coverage of the U.S. midterm elections: http://apne.ws/APPolitics

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