The best North Dakota Republicans can do is Tom Campbell.
For six years they've salivated over the thought of taking down U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a lonely Democrat in a state so politically conservative it's beginning to give Alabama and Mississippi a run for their money, to the point of near-obsession.
Heitkamp is one of the most vulnerable Democratic senators facing re-election in 2018, and she appeared to be in even more trouble after the election of President Donald Trump in 2016. Republicans poked and prodded Heitkamp, hand-fed their media lackeys angles from which to attack her and celebrated joyously when the GOP passed a "tax reform" package she voted against. That, they said, was going to be the stake through Heitkamp's heart-she voted against tax cuts trumpeted by Trump.
The champagne was iced, ready to pop on Nov. 6 when they sent Heitkamp home from D.C.
And the best they can do is Tom Campbell.
That's the most eye-popping takeaway from the news U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer has decided to seek re-election and will not challenge Heitkamp for her Senate seat.
In a race state GOPers have been tingling over since 2012, for a seat the national party was eyeing as a sure pick-up to keep or expand its majority, North Dakota Republicans are sending into battle an unknown state senator of little accomplishment from Grafton who the party itself was trying to deep-six for months.
In the immortal words of Republican state Rep. Roscoe Streyle of Minot, which we've used before and will likely use again: "I don't think Tom Campbell can beat Heidi in any way, shape or form. I just don't think he has what it takes, from a money-raising standpoint, to being able to debate her, to a record that would show he's done anything in the Legislature."
With friends like that, who needs Democrats?
Assuming no other better or better-known candidates jump into the race-with Rick Berg bowing out, who would it be?-we are left with this analysis of the North Dakota Republican Party: It is a mile wide and an inch deep.
Yes, the GOP dominates North Dakota politics and will continue to do so. It's their state. No question.
But with six years to cultivate and recruit the best possible candidate to take away a crucial U.S. Senate seat it covets from an incumbent who is a member of a deeply damaged Democratic Party in a thoroughly red state, the best the NDGOP can do is Tom Campbell.
Make no mistake, this will still be a very close race. The odds still favor Campbell, and he might win. Getting elected in North Dakota is tough sledding for any Democrat, even one as moderate, bipartisan and personally well-liked as Heitkamp.
But the fact the Republican bench is so thin that a nearly anonymous state legislator with no major achievements on his brief political resume is the candidate to take her on is telling. How powerful is the party, really?
Readers can reach Forum columnist Mike McFeely at (701) 241-5379