FARGO, N.D. (CN) – The 2018 midterm election has besieged North Dakota. Every YouTube ad, every television, every billboard around Fargo tells the tale of the Peace Garden State’s very own David versus Goliath. But who is the giant and who is the plucky underdog with the sling? It depends on who you ask.
Incumbent U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, started strong but currently trails challenger Kevin Cramer by a whopping 12 points among likely voters, according to a recent Fox News poll. The spread tightens to 9 points for registered voters. Either way, it spells trouble for Heitkamp’s re-election bid.
Independent voters in North Dakota tell a different tale in a poll from the same source, favoring Heitkamp 55-29.
Cramer may be the challenger for the seat, but he wasn’t necessarily an out-of-nowhere underdog. As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for North Dakota’s largest district, Cramer was pulled into the spotlight when Donald Trump personally recruited him to run against Heitkamp.
For the North Dakota GOP, months of uncertainty plagued the nomination process as Cramer toyed with the idea of running against Heitkamp. This past January, he announced he was not planning to run.
With that reveal by Cramer, who made the announcement on KFYR radio’s “What’s On Your Mind?”, the Republicans found themselves in a tough spot against a popular Democrat incumbent. They were down to a small pool of candidates to choose from and unwilling to commit to the second-place choice, conservative farmer Tom Campbell.
Cramer initially claimed his decision not to run stemmed from wanting more time to commit to his family and his role in Congress. That decision lasted about a month before Cramer finally agreed to run at the behest of the president himself.
An onslaught of campaign backing by the Trump administration followed, featuring multiple visits in support of the GOP candidate by both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
The first of Trump’s two stops in North Dakota to campaign for Cramer came in the form of one of his signature “Make America Great Again” rallies in late June. The president had no trouble filling the 6,000-seat hockey arena, with most of the estimated 15,000 supporters who turned up left outside.
With a thunderous crowd and an awkward hug, Cramer was off to the races.
The shining endorsement and request by Trump played well immediately in the state that voted overwhelmingly red, with nearly 63 percent voting for Trump to Democrat Hillary Clinton’s 27 percent.
Though Trump and Cramer have appeal in the red state, not every North Dakota passerby agreed wholeheartedly with the MAGA crowd.
Brianna, an undecided North Dakota State University student, is excited to vote and takes her obligation seriously while pondering her options.
“I still need to do more research. I feel it’s part of my civic duty to know who I’m voting for and what they stand for,” said Brianna. “I’m leaning toward Heitkamp but I can’t say I’m set on either one yet.”
She expressed concerns over Trump’s recent tariffs, which many in North Dakota say hurt the farming industry – especially given the large number of soybean farmers in the Red River Valley.
“Trade is a big issue right now, especially with the agriculture industry,” said Brianna.
Fargo resident Brandon strongly supports Heitkamp, more due to his dislike of the President than his love of Heitkamp.
“I will be voting for Heidi Heitkamp,” said Brandon. “The fact is that Kevin Cramer is backed by Donald Trump, who I think is an idiot. I don’t support that.”
He also showed enthusiasm for one of North Dakota’s more hot-button measures in recent history, Measure 3, which would decriminalize the recreational use of marijuana.
While many are in favor of the measure, others have serious reservations about its implementation.
Burleigh County Senior Assistant State's Attorney Julie Lawyer cautioned voters in an interview for myndnow.com that Measure 3 would decriminalize consumption regardless of age.
"So if officers come across a 16-year-old who has recently consumed marijuana, there's nothing they can do about it," said Lawyer.
But Jake from West Fargo voiced his support of Cramer and echoed the sentiments of the president at his North Dakota rally.
“Obviously jobs and the economy are the biggest thing,” said Jake. “The tax breaks helped and jobs are coming back.”
He pointed to the current unemployment rate as his evidence to support his choice.
Controversy left an early stain on Cramer’s campaign when it was revealed he used campaign funds to pay family members hired on as staff, including his wife as his campaign manager. He defended his hiring choice and praised his wife for the work she did for the campaign, claiming he was actually saving money by paying her a fraction of the market value.
Heitkamp had her own brush with controversy recently when her campaign ran an ad that used the names of sexual assault survivors without their permission. The newspaper ad ran in several papers across North Dakota, posing as an open letter concerning sexual assault in the wake of the Brett Kavanaugh hearing.
On Tuesday, Heitkamp issued an apology for the error, calling it “horrible,” and promptly fired the staffer responsible for the ad. Heitkamp spokeswoman Julia Krieger confirmed the employee was fired but declined to name the person.
Cramer may have the edge in the current polls, but with the president at the nexus of the contention between parties and 19 days to go, it’s still anyone’s game.
The Cramer campaign, Heitkamp campaign, state Republican and Democratic parties did not respond to multiple requests for comment by press time.