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If politics were poker, North Dakota Republicans would hold all the right cards and the deck would be stacked in their favor.
Except for Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, the GOP controls every state and federal elected position in the Sioux State. The GOP’s good political fortune continues with the state’s booming economy, fueled by recently tapped oil reserves, and an unemployment rate that sits below 3 percent.
With no Senate races until 2016, state Democrats are angling to break back into the game in 2014 and unseat Rep. Kevin Cramer. This cycle marks the first in four years without a Senate race, and Democrats argue that Cramer will receive more scrutiny than he did during his first campaign in 2012.
But party sources say Cramer has become more politically savvy since he upset a crowded GOP field to win the nod last cycle. He defeated his Democratic opponent by 13 points in the open-seat race to succeed Republican Rep. Rick Berg.
Still, state Democrats are talking up potential Cramer challengers.
State Sen. George B. Sinner is eyeing a House bid, according to Chad Oban, executive director of the North Dakota Democratic Nonpartisan League Party. Sinner, the son of former two-term Gov. George A. Sinner, boasts strong name recognition in the state.
Looking ahead to 2016, Democrats will attempt to defeat GOP Sen. John Hoeven, the three-term governor who demolished his Democratic opponent in 2010.
Sources agreed that there are a handful of Democrats who could contend for Congress in the coming cycles. In addition to Sinner, Democrats mention state Rep. Corey Mock and U.S. Department of Agriculture State Director Jasper Schneider as the top players on their party’s bench.
Oban argued that youth is on the side of his party. Mock, serving since 2009, is one of eight Democrats elected to the state legislature in 2012 who were under 35 years old. Schneider, who previously served as a state representative for three years, is still shy of 35.
As for Republican hopefuls, there isn’t much room for upward mobility. Any one of the current GOP elected officials, from public service commissioner to the governor, could be congressional material in upcoming years, a source said.
Julie Fedorchak, for instance, is a public service commissioner with plenty of congressional potential, a Republican operative said. Still, the operative stressed that Fedorchak is just one of many capable state-level Republican leaders.
Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple is well-liked, sources said, but he’s made no indication that he’s considering a congressional bid. He unsuccessfully ran for Senate in 1988 and 1992.
Aside from keeping Cramer in office, Republicans are focused on unseating Heitkamp in 2018. Sources on both sides of the aisle agree that she is the Democrats’ ace in the hole.
Paul Wilson, of Wilson Grand Communications, has worked for both Hoeven and Cramer. He recalled Heitkamp’s 2000 campaign, when she lost a gubernatorial bid to Hoeven while fighting cancer.
“It was a hard-fought race,” Wilson said. “Even though people didn’t elect her, they respect her.”
In the 2012 Senate race, Heitkamp narrowly beat Berg. Republicans view her as a tough competitor.
“She will be a difficult challenge,” Wilson said. “She’s a ferocious campaigner.”
For now, however, Republicans can count their chips.
Farm Team is a weekly state-by-state look at the up-and-coming politicos who may eventually run for Congress. The series will continue when Congress returns in January.