BISMARCK - Calling himself a “stronger candidate” to face Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp this year, Republican Gary Emineth said Wednesday, Jan. 31, he would jump in the U.S. Senate race.

"I am in,” the Bismarck businessman and former state Republican Party chairman said in a text message to a Forum News Service reporter.

The announcement ends speculation about Emineth’s intentions and sets up a battle within the Republican Party. State Sen. Tom Campbell, a farmer from Grafton, was the only Republican to throw his hat in the ring until Wednesday.

“I believe I’m more conservative,” Emineth said. “I think my values are more in line with North Dakotans.”

Emineth, 59, said earlier this week that he was "over 90 percent" sure he would run. Leading up to his announcement Wednesday, he issued press statements related to events in Washington and criticizing Heitkamp.

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Emineth’s decision came after his recent departure from the burrito company Green Chile Foods and Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer’s announcement that he would run for re-election instead of challenging Heitkamp. The two events freed Emineth to run for Senate, he said.

North Dakota Republicans will hold their state convention in early April in Grand Forks. Neither Emineth nor Campbell would say whether they would go to the June primary election if the other won the party’s support at the convention.

Several others have publicly declined a run against Heitkamp, a former state attorney general and tax commissioner. She defeated Rick Berg, then a first-term Republican congressman, in 2012 by less than 3,000 votes.

Heitkamp is the only Democrat elected to statewide office in North Dakota, a state President Donald Trump won by 36 points. Emineth said Heitkamp is “very beatable” and “liberal” Democratic leadership has “too much influence on her voting history.”

In a statement, Heitkamp’s campaign said she is “solely focused” on her work in the Senate. Scott McNeil, the executive director of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party, called Emineth a “professional political hack who holds absolutely zero qualifications to serve in the U.S. Senate.”

Emineth said the only elected public office he’s held was on the Washburn City Commission in the 1980s, but he bristled at the assertion he’s unqualified. He ran unsuccessfully for the state Legislature in 1984.

“I’m a business guy, entrepreneur, who has now decided I’ve got an opportunity to give back and I’m going to be involved in the process,” he said.

Emineth was the North Dakota Republican Party chairman from 2007 to 2010 and was a founding member of the North Dakota Tea Party Caucus. He managed Cramer’s 2012 House campaign through the primary election.

Campbell welcomed the competition but said he’s been building name recognition for months on the campaign trail. He met with Vice President Mike Pence at the White House Tuesday, where they discussed the campaign and advancing Trump’s agenda.

“It’s not new for me. I don’t have to catch up or anything,” Campbell said. “I’m confident and I’m just going to keep going with our current game plan.”

Republican Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak said Wednesday it’s still “unlikely” she’d launch a bid for Senate, but she didn’t rule it out.