Top Republicans in Washington are privately sending this message to a GOP congressman once viewed as a top recruit in North Dakota: Don't run against Sen. Heidi Heitkamp next year.
Senior Senate GOP officials have grown concerned that Rep. Kevin Cramer's penchant for controversial remarks could damage their chances at one of the party's most prized opportunities to pickup the crucial seat occupied by Heitkamp, a rare Democratic statewide officeholder in the conservative state. Cramer's latest remark: Defending Sean Spicer this week in the aftermath of the White House spokesman's widely condemned comments about Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust.
Behind the scenes, there's a growing GOP push to woo a wealthy North Dakota state senator, Tom Campbell, who has the resources to largely self-fund a campaign against Heitkamp, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter.
Campbell is taking a series of steps to mount a challenge, putting together an organization with the resources that will let him run for a statewide office next year, according to Chip Englander, a political adviser to the state senator. Campbell "definitely" will run for either the House seat now occupied by Cramer or for the Senate seat next year, Englander said.
"He can even the score on Day 1," Englander said, suggesting Campbell could drop roughly $2 million into the campaign to immediately eliminate Heitkamp's financial advantage. He said Campbell would raise some money also if he mounts a run.
A final decision could come within a matter of weeks.
The maneuvering comes as some influential Republicans now are fearful that Cramer could damage their chances if he commits gaffes like GOP candidate Todd Akin did in 2012 when he cost his party a chance to pickup the Missouri Senate seat.
"On paper, it looks like he could win, but he also appears to have a few Akin-like tendencies that make a lot of people nervous," said one Senate GOP campaign veteran, who, like other top Republicans, asked for anonymity to assess the field candidly.
In an interview, Cramer pushed back, saying Washington Republicans don't understand his state, noting that he has held more than 400 town hall meetings since 2013 and won his statewide race with 69% of the vote last year. He said had Heitkamp's 2012 opponent, Rick Berg, relied on North Dakota consultants rather than Washington experts, "he'd be a United States senator today."
"This is what the people in the swamp think: We can't have this overexposed guy who has 100% name ID and says things that are on his mind," Cramer, an early support of President Donald Trump, told CNN. "What they don't calculate is how very much appreciated that is in places like North Dakota."
Cramer said he is still undecided on if he'll run for the Senate, saying a decision would come in a matter of months. But Cramer, who met with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell about a possible run in December, said "not at all" when asked if Cambell's prospective candidacy would dissuade him from running for Heitkamp's seat.
Cramer got national attention this week when he said that there was some "validity" to Spicer's comments that Hitler did not use chemical weapons in World War II. While Spicer apologized for his remarks, Cramer said it was a "factual" statement that Hitler didn't use chemical weapons on the "battlefield" similar to what's happened in Syria.
"I can't even believe that anybody in the media, much less all of the major networks, led with this story," Cramer said earlier this week. "A spokesperson, who by the way made a poor illustration, but it's not completely, it's not without some validity."
Cramer has made other controversial remarks in the past, including after Democratic women wore white to highlight the women's suffrage movement during Trump's speech to Congress earlier this year. Cramer called them "poorly dressed" with "bad-looking white pantsuits."
On Friday, Cramer told CNN that the media "overblew" his comments on Spicer and said Republicans in Washington get caught up in the media frenzy, which he said is dismissed by voters back home.
"I know how North Dakotans think," Cramer said.