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Cramer rides Trump ties to oust Heitkamp in Senate

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) — Republican Kevin Cramer ousted Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp on Tuesday, persuading North Dakota voters that his emphatic conservatism would serve them better than her occasional independence from her own party.

Cramer won the race, helping Republicans retain their Senate majority, just nine months after it took a personal appeal from President Donald Trump to get him into the race. Once he got in, the three-term congressman made his support for Trump a pillar of his campaign.

Cramer, in his victory speech at Bismarck State College, said Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called to congratulate him.

Cramer called the victory “the honor of my life.”

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.

Before Cramer had stepped forward to take on Heitkamp, a charismatic and popular figure known to many in her small state as simply “Heidi,” 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.”

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.

Despite a personal appeal from Trump, Cramer announced in January he wouldn’t run for Senate, citing family considerations and his House seniority.

Cramer said Tuesday that a second plea from Trump and the party faithful in February made him change his mind.

“We made the decision to run for the Senate and never once looked back,” he told a cheering crowd.

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.

Connor Gref, 18, a Bismarck retail store worker preparing for college, said he did “a lot of digging and research” before settling on Cramer.

“How each ran their campaign — I feel his was more credible, more believable,” Gref said. “Cross-checking information, some of Heidi’s stuff didn’t add up. Cramer’s (campaign) was more steady throughout, more consistent, truthful.”

Heidi Wahl-McDonald, 43, a Bismarck banker, said she thought Heitkamp was more likely to put the state’s interests ahead of her party’s.

“She’s done a lot for North Dakota. She’s a good leader. I think she’s done a lot of things for our farmers. I think she’s done a lot for businesses in North Dakota,” Wahl-McDonald said after voting Tuesday. “And not necessarily always voting on party lines — just making decisions based on what she thinks is best.”

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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