FARGO — Kevin Cramer started the year declaring that he was happy as North Dakota’s lone representative in the House and spurning those who urged him to challenge Heidi Heitkamp in the Senate.
He’s ending the year preparing to take Heitkamp’s seat after defeating her in the November election — and, in so doing, depriving North Dakota Democrats of their last remaining statewide office.
Cramer has been one of President Donald Trump’s most steadfast supporters. Trump, in fact, made two campaign stops to stump for Cramer, both in Fargo, perhaps the first time the city has received two presidential visits in the same year.
The hard-fought North Dakota Senate race was the most expensive in history, with the campaigns spending, by Cramer’s tally, about $30 million.
“That’s before you start considering the outside groups, and the outside groups probably spent that much or more,” said Cramer, who claimed Heitkamp outspent him 5 to 1.
It’s been an extraordinary year for Cramer, chosen as The Forum’s Area Person of the Year in 2018 because of his Senate win and how it altered North Dakota's political landscape. He will become the 24th person to represent North Dakota in the U.S. Senate when he takes office in January.
On a recent late December afternoon, Cramer sat down with The Forum to talk about the events that swept him into the Senate, despite his initial hesitancy, and his plans once in office.
“There was no risk in staying in the House,” he said, explaining his reluctance to enter the Senate race.
“This isn’t my career,” said Cramer, who has dedicated most of his adult life to serving in elected or appointed political or Republican party offices. As with many North Dakota families, “We quite literally live from paycheck to paycheck.”
'Kevin, I need you'
His change of heart started with a phone call from Harold Hamm, chairman of Continental Oil, which led the fracking revolution that produced the boom in North Dakota’s Oil Patch.
“It was really on behalf of the president that he called,” said Cramer, who seemed ready to be persuaded. “We had enough data to know Senator Heitkamp was very vulnerable.”
A pivotal moment came when Cramer met with Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., chairman of the National Republican Senate Committee, which works to elect Republicans to the Senate, in the senator’s hideaway office at the Capitol.
Cramer said he told Gardner none of his reasons for not running had changed. Gardner’s response jolted Cramer: “It’s as simple as this,” Cramer said, recalling Gardner’s pitch. “If you run we win, if you don’t we don’t.”
A short time later Trump called to urge Cramer to run. "He didn’t beat around the bush," Cramer said. "Kevin, I need you in this Senate race. He said stop thinking about yourself and start thinking about the country. That’s literally what he said. It became a patriotic duty, so to speak.”
When Cramer is sworn in as a senator, he will return to a badly divided Capitol, locked in gridlock and dysfunction, including a partial government shutdown.
The two adversarial parties will be forced to work together, Cramer said. His solution to ending the divisions: “To see what the art of the possible is.”
Too many members of both parties refuse to back down from talking points as if carved in stone, he said. “I get it as a beginning position, but it’s a lousy ending position,” he said, referring to members’ refusal to budge.
“I’ve always been about the art of the possible,” Cramer said. He’s willing to take half a loaf instead of nothing at all, he said, in order to get something important done.
Rise to power
Cramer’s ascent to the Senate during his political career has come with a few fits and starts, with his earliest successes coming more from appointments than ballot box wins.
He served as chairman of the North Dakota Republican Party in the early 1990s, becoming the state’s youngest party chairman when he was named at the age of 30.
Former Gov. Ed Schafer was an early Cramer backer, appointing Cramer to head the state’s tourism program in 1993. Cramer made his first run for Congress in 1996, losing to Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., then Schafer named him the state’s economic development director in 1997.
Cramer again lost to Pomeroy in a rematch House race in 1998 and became head of the Harold Schafer Leadership Foundation until then-Gov. John Hoeven appointed him to the Public Service Commission.
Cramer’s first statewide election victory came in 2004, when he was elected to his PSC seat. He won re-election to the PSC in 2010, then won his first term in the U.S. House in 2012, after bucking the party and winning the nomination in a primary race. Two years earlier, he lost the nomination for the House seat to Rick Berg.
Now that he’s preparing for his move to the Senate, Cramer is looking forward to the larger staff he will have. As a senator, he can hire 30 to 35 staff members — at least twice the 15 he has as a congressman, with a budget three times as large.
Cramer’s career trajectory has diverged from the path he was considering when he was a student at Concordia College contemplating going to the seminary. But Cramer always had ambition.
“I always thought I wanted to be bishop,” he said. Cramer considers politics another calling. “I appreciate serving God by serving people,” he said. “It’s certainly another path than I thought when I was taking Greek.”
Because of his three House terms, Cramer will enter the Senate as the second-most senior freshman. Cramer will serve on five Senate committees: environment and public works, armed services, budget, veterans' affairs and banking.
His priorities will include roll out and implementation of the new farm bill, national defense and border security, as well as reforming the Affordable Care Act.
Perhaps, in an odd way, divided government can lead to compromise on the polarizing issue of health care, Cramer said.
“Now we have the perfect reason for the two sides to work it out,” he said.
The Forum's Area Person of the Year recognizes someone who sparked changes and discussion that most influenced our area in the past year. The Forum's selections are made by editors. The following are past winners:
2017: Carson Wentz, former North Dakota State University quarterback drafted by the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles, chosen not only because of his top-notch play but also for his impact off the field, including his involvement in his faith-based foundation.
2016: Doug Burgum, the tech mogul, real estate developer and millionaire philanthropist, because he was elected as North Dakota's governor in his first run for public office.
2015: Jessica Thomasson, CEO of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, because she serves as a lightning rod for criticism of refugee resettlement and leads an agency with great impact on the region.
2014: Sherrie Skuza, widow of Fargo police Lt. Jeff Skuza, whose criticism of the internal investigation of her late husband sparked changes in the department.
2013: Craig Bohl, former North Dakota State University football coach, for leading the team to multiple national titles and bringing national exposure to NDSU.
2012: Heidi Heitkamp for her election as North Dakota's first female U.S. senator.
2011: David Berg, American Crystal Sugar CEO, as a main driving force behind a prolonged lockout of sugar workers, personified labor struggles here and elsewhere.
2010: Denny Sanford, whose wealth and vision played major roles in shaping what used to be Fargo MeritCare Medical Center into the region's largest hospital system.
2009: Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker for helping lead the flood fight.
2008: Fargo-Moorhead youths for their many volunteer efforts to better the community.
2007: Tracy Briggs, former WDAY radio personality, for organizing World War II Honor Flights.
2006: Joseph Chapman, then president of North Dakota State University, for leading the school to a higher profile.