- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 13, 2018

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - North Dakota U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer is looking ahead to a November battle with Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp that could be key to control the chamber.

Cramer brushed aside a challenge from Air Force veteran Thomas O’Neill and cruised to an easy victory in Tuesday’s Republican Senate primary in North Dakota.

“It’s an important step in the process,” Cramer said. “Hopefully voters will get in the habit of voting for my name.”

In the only other statewide primary, state Sen. Kelly Armstrong eased past a pair of political newcomers in the GOP race for Cramer’s House seat. Armstrong left his post as state party chairman to run after Cramer announced his Senate bid.

“I was honored to get the endorsement and win the primary but there is nothing to celebrate yet,” said Armstrong, a strong supporter of President Donald Trump.

Democrat Mac Schneider, a former state senator who was unopposed, awaited Armstrong. In a statement, Schneider portrayed Armstrong as “unwilling to stand up for North Dakota” when it would mean going against Trump.

Democrats had no contested statewide races and were gearing up for the fall campaign, hoping Heitkamp - their only statewide officeholder - can hang on to a seat she won by fewer than 3,000 votes in 2012 in the deeply conservative state.

Cramer and Heitkamp have been stockpiling millions for a race that Republicans see as one of their top chances to gain ground in the Senate.

Cramer said he and his campaign has an effective strategy for unseating the personable and popular Heitkamp, though he wouldn’t reveal it.

“We have a lot of messaging in the can, but we don’t want to show too much leg, if you will,” he said.

Cramer weighed a challenge to Heitkamp for months before announcing earlier this year that he wouldn’t run. He later changed his mind and said Trump had pressed him to enter the race.

Heitkamp, who is seeking her second term, has played up her independence from the Democratic Party. She has also sided with the president on some policy issues popular in the state, such as deregulation.

Mavis Hoffman, an 80-year-old retired farmer from Bismarck, said Heitkamp is “not all bad,” but when it comes to the general election, she’s leaning toward Cramer because of his allegiance to Trump.

“I like Trump, so I’ll probably go with Cramer,” Hoffman said.

Wayne Kurle, a 65-year-old retired surveyor from Mandan, said he sees Heitkamp as independent.

“She votes both sides of the aisle,” he said. “I don’t need a rubber stamp in there. (Cramer) is too close to the (Republicans). He only votes one way - what Trump wants.”


Associated Press writer Blake Nicholson contributed to this report from Bismarck.


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