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Jacobs: Could Trump dump Cramer?

Kevin Cramer Rick Abbott / The Forum 1 / 2
U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (second right) shakes hands with President Donald Trump on Sept. 6 at the Tesoro Refinery in Mandan, N.D., as U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer (far right) and Sen. John Hoeven (second left) stand nearby. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor2 / 2

An adage, my dictionary says, is a short statement expressing a general truth, and here is an example a grade school teacher taught me: If you don't like the weather in North Dakota, wait a minute.

Last week's weather proved the point, and it occurred to me that this adage could apply to politics as well. A month ago Republicans were confident of a clean sweep on the North Dakota ballot in November, but contrary winds have begun to blow.

Republicans lost a statewide candidate when Will Gardner withdrew from the race for secretary of state, leaving the party scrambling — and settling eventually on the very man they'd rejected at their state convention. He's the incumbent, Al Jaeger, who will run as an independent. The secretary of state contest will follow the federal candidates on the ballot; in other words, Republicans will have to leave the column in order to vote for him.

No one can be sure but it may be that Gardner would have survived the publication of his arrest record, but once exposed he quit the race. That might have ended the matter, but Kevin Cramer couldn't keep his mouth shut, and he rushed to Gardner's defense, calling him a good man and suggesting that he could be a candidate in another election some other time.

Cramer is the candidate for the U.S. Senate, the top of the ticket race. His defense of Gardner didn't do either of them any good politically; Gardner was a gone goose by the time Cramer said anything, and Cramer's statement raised questions about his own political judgment, a quality already in question. Cramer consistently displays a premature naïve enthusiasm.

Cramer has been an uncritical supporter of Donald Trump, not a political liability in itself, except that he's been obsequious about it, suggesting, for example, that the president deserved the Nobel Peace Prize even before the North Korean summit. He was also an early apologist for Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, whose latest policy initiative is to end the renewable fuels standard, a move that would have a wallet-draining effect on North

Dakota farmers.

The standard is an example of how a little appreciated provision, like a well-placed bush, can cause the political winds to shift. Other examples include looming trade wars, one with China, which buys a big share of North Dakota's soybean crop, and one with Canada and Mexico over the North American Free Trade Agreement. Despite initial opposition from the state's congressional delegation, all Democrats at the time, NAFTA has proven to be very good for North Dakota. To these add the farm bill, defeated in the Republican-controlled House of

Representatives and resurrected in the Senate.

These developments put the incumbent, U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in an enviable political provision. He can mold provisions of the farm bill and take credit for its passage while shoveling all the blame in the direction of House Republicans, and by implication her opponent, Cramer.

Then there's the tax bill, which Cramer praises as better for North Dakota than for any other state — little thanks to him, Heitkamp might argue, since he let a provision damaging to the state's sugar industry get past the House and left the Senate to clean up the damage.

The product of all this is uncertainty, a potentially lethal toxin in politics; farmers hate it and so do bankers. This is not the end. Heitkamp's own actions helped fill her sails. She helped engineer changes to banking regulations that hurt smaller banks. The president invited Heitkamp to join him as he signed the measure, affording Heitkamp proof on film of her assertion that she not only can work across party lines but can get credit for what she does.

It's a sign of frustration that Republicans whined about Trump's attention to Heitkamp, and there were worried suggestions that the president might forego campaigning against her, a decision that might doom Cramer's chances.

Cramer inadvertently underscored Heitkamp's appeal to voters. In an ad attacking her vote on the tax bill, he said, "We all like Heidi." That's not true, actually; plenty of Democrats are angry that she's cozied up to the president. They might not matter much if she succeeds in attracting crossover votes by presenting herself as a successful advocate of the state's interests, despite her party affiliation.

Her "battery acid" ad did that brilliantly, and she didn't utter Cramer's name. Republicans, meanwhile, saw their ballot leader stumble, their secretary of state candidate fold and their executive director quit. At the same time, Democrat Mac Schneider, running for the House seat Cramer is leaving, kept sniping at Republican Kelly Armstrong, a thoughtful, intellectual conservative, not a populist bully like some others in his party.

Heitkamp's re-election seemed in jeopardy a month ago, and it certainly isn't assured now. The election is five months away, plenty of time for the political weather to change. For the moment, however, her odds seem to have improved, even if it isn't quite time to wonder if she might have coattails.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.

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