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Armstrong enters House race; Campbell hints at primary

February 22, 2018

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota Republican Party Chairman Kelly Armstrong said Thursday he’s running for U.S. House, setting up a possible primary fight with state Sen. Tom Campbell if Campbell is passed over for the party endorsement.

Armstrong, 41, aims to fill a void GOP Rep. Kevin Cramer left open last week when the third-term congressman said he would challenge Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp.

“We need a conservative guy with a conservative record going to Washington to fight for North Dakota,” said Armstrong, a lawyer and state senator from Dickinson.

Cramer’s move prompted Campbell to jump from the U.S. Senate race to the House contest. Campbell, a wealthy potato farmer from Grafton, spent heavily to build his campaign since last summer but Republicans had sought a stronger challenger for Heitkamp.

Campbell’s campaign, in an email to party faithful, said “it appears there will be a contested primary for the House seat” with Armstrong’s entry into the race.

Campbell would not confirm whether he will run in the primary if he fails to get the GOP nod at the convention.

“The plan is to win the convention and the primary,” Campbell spokesman Michael Schrimpf said in a statement.

Armstrong said he expects Campbell to run in the primary regardless.

“Everybody has that right under state law,” Armstrong said.

As the state GOP chair, Armstrong has advocated that candidates win a party endorsement before mounting a primary race.

“I will honor that,” Armstrong said. “I want this job bad but not bad enough to be a hypocrite.”

Armstrong, while well-known in GOP circles and in much of western North Dakota, said he would begin campaigning statewide immediately and expects to have the cash necessary to mount a successful bid.

“In politics, never underestimate how few people know you,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong and Campbell are both strong supporters of President Donald Trump. Armstrong claims he is one of the most conservative lawmakers in the North Dakota Legislature. He is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Armstrong is vice president of his family’s oil business. His father, Mike, is a longtime oil driller who has been a competitor and colleague of billionaire Harold Hamm, considered the godfather of North Dakota’s oil industry.

While a strong supporter of everything from energy to gun rights, Armstrong, a former defense attorney, almost singlehandedly reworked a bill last session that established guidelines for the use of confidential informants. He did so with input from prosecutors, fellow defense lawyers, law enforcement, and the family of a 20-year-old college student who was found dead after working undercover.

Campbell’s campaign in a statement said he “is best positioned to represent North Dakota in the U.S. House. He’s spent months criss-crossing the state to meet voters, and Republican voters know that no one will work harder to fight for conservative values.”

The only other declared GOP candidate in the race is Tiffany Abentroth, a 32-year-old former U.S. Marine and Iraq war veteran who says her family has farmed in eastern North Dakota since a decade before statehood in 1889.

Democrats have one declared candidate, Ben Hanson, a commercial real estate broker from Fargo and one-term state representative who lost his seat in 2016.

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