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McFeely: After Cramer, Neset might be GOP's next best hope to beat Heitkamp

Kathleen Neset

Give North Dakota Republicans credit. Just when you think they might have to put up any old Rick Becker or Tom Campbell to run against U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in 2018, they just might pull a Kathy Neset out of their caps.

Who? Well, yeah. That's an issue. But it might not be crippling.

Neset is the owner of an oilfield consulting business in Tioga who is best known in these parts as a member of the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education. She's not exactly been a superstar there. She unsuccessfully tried to run North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani out of town on the flimsiest of premises, she's whined about North Dakota State College of Science President John Richman not kissing her ring and, by sitting silently, she was complicit in the Legislature gutting higher education funding in the last session.

But, despite a flimsy public resume, when it comes to running against Heitkamp, she'd be more formidable than either Becker, a legend-in-his-own-mind state representative from Bismarck, or Campbell, a delusions-of-grandeur state senator from Grafton — and maybe even more than U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer. The state's lone House member has long coveted beating Heitkamp, but might not want to take a chance on losing a job he can have forever — along with the fat paycheck and fully paid government health insurance that go with it.

Former U.S. Rep. Rick Berg, who lost the Senate race to Heitkamp in 2012, is another possibility to challenge Heitkamp, but there are those who hold up his campaign as the textbook example of how to lose an election you're supposed to win.

So both state and national Republicans are talking to Neset, trying to sway her to challenge Heitkamp. An obscure blog, The Minuteman, reported last week that NDGOP Executive Committee Chairman Kelly Armstrong and Vice Chair Jim Poolman met with Neset about a run. Reached Tuesday, July 11, Poolman would not confirm a meeting, but said: "Our job as party leaders is to make sure the party has the best candidates possible. We have many conversations with those that may have an interest."

So, in other words, they did meet. And, if you look at it with clear eyes, recruiting Neset to run against Heitkamp is not a bad play. She checks all the boxes near and dear to North Dakota Republican voters and has a pretty good backstory. The Minuteman lists a dozen positives of a Neset run, but it really boils down to a handful.

She's a wealthy business owner (check), an insider in the oil industry (check) and gives speeches titled "Lead Like Jesus" (check). It helps, too, that she's a political "outsider" (although not really) who doesn't have a voting record.

And, as even Democrats acknowledge, it doesn't hurt that Neset is a woman. That removes the possibility that a man, especially one with foot-in-mouth disease like Cramer, could be seen as bullying Heitkamp.

Republicans could sell Neset's backstory as the female hockey player from the East Coast who came to North Dakota for oil, fell in love with a farmer and stayed to raise a family and start a successful oilfield business. Her husband, Roy, died of an illness in 2005.

On paper, it makes sense. Whether it would work in reality against Heitkamp, a popular incumbent who has done a good job representing the state while working well with many mainstay GOP organizations like the energy sector and Chamber of Commerce, is another question.

"Kathy has a great story and resume," Poolman said. "Successful businesswoman, community and state leader, articulate, smart and successful. That's why people have encouraged her to run."

Cramer is probably the best bet to beat Heitkamp. But if he decides not to run, Neset might be the NDGOP's next best hope.

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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