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Trump's cabinet picks could mean changes in North Dakota politics

GRAND FORKS -- A sprint for North Dakota's lone U.S. House seat or one of its Senate seats could start any day now. But it depends on President-elect Donald Trump. If he names either Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., or Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., to h...

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From left: Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-ND, and Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-ND. (Herald graphic/Sam Easter)

GRAND FORKS - A sprint for North Dakota's lone U.S. House seat or one of its Senate seats could start any day now.

But it depends on President-elect Donald Trump. If he names either Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., or Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., to his administration, it will signal the beginning of a flurry of political jockeying to be North Dakota's voice in Washington.

Cramer, who is under advanced consideration for energy secretary, discussed the matter directly with Trump in New York on Monday, Dec. 5. Heitkamp has dismissed talk of a cabinet position as purely speculative, and insisted that an administration job did not come up in her own conversation with Trump last week, but that hasn't stopped observers from suggesting she might be picked for energy or interior secretary.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky met with Cramer this week to discuss a potential open Senate seat, The Hill newspaper reported.

There is no guarantee that either will wind up with a Cabinet post. Several other names have been floated for energy secretary within the past two weeks, including Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

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Heitkamp's departure from North Dakota politics could pose a blow to state Democrats, who would lose their most senior-ranking elected official. State party Chairwoman Kylie Oversen said last week that the possibility "adds some anxiety" to party political calculations.

But if either accepts a job within the Trump administration, it would mean a special election to fill the position. And that's where things get interesting.

It's not clear exactly when a special election would happen. Jim Silrum, North Dakota's deputy secretary of state, said state law says a special election will happen within 95 days of the governor calling for it-not within 95 days of the vacancy itself.

"Our advice to the governor would be, call the election to happen 95 days from the date that you call it," Silrum said. The actual date of the election could be influenced by several factors, including the preparations necessary for an election and the date politicians leave office.

Silrum added that ballots for either position would likely include one candidate each for Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians, as well as any independently nominated candidates on the ballot via petition.

It's not clear how many politicians would line up for either post, but multiple leaders have signaled interest. Sen. Tom Campbell, R-Grafton, said he would run for either seat if they opened up.

"I'm all ready to go on the sidelines," Campbell said.

Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, a former candidate for governor, did not say for certain if he would run for either seat, but said he's open to that possibility.

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"My actual answer is I don't know. I'm not ruling any of them out," Becker said. "I've taken over six, maybe closer to eight months, thinking about 2018, thinking about whether I should make a move to try and run for a U.S. office, and now there's a potential for me to have to make a very quick decision."

Some high-profile politicians seem easier to count out. Though Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley said in October that he's still trying to decide what he's going to do once his time at the Capitol ends, his spokesman Jeff Zent said Wednesday that Wrigley is joining the private sector and said Wrigley did not want to speculate on what could happen to Cramer or Heitkamp's seats.

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who was reelected in 2014 with 74 percent of the vote and also ran for governor in the Republican primary, has appeared to rule out Washington jobs. Asked in October about a potential run for Heitkamp's seat, he cited his wife's career in North Dakota and a difficult political culture in the nation's capital.

"I don't want to live in Washington," Stenehjem said. "I go to Washington two or three times a year, and you know what? I'm never as happy as I am when I leave."

A path to Washington is less clear for Democrats, whose most successful statewide candidate, state treasurer hopeful Tim Mathern, earned 29 percent of the vote on Election Day. State House Minority Leader Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, said he hasn't given it any thought, given his new leadership role, but said that Mac Schneider, a Grand Forks Democrat and senator who lost his re-election bid, would be an excellent candidate.

"He is someone who is being missed by members of both political parties," Mock said.

Schneider said that's a bridge he'll cross when-and if- he comes to it.

"Obviously, it's very flattering to be mentioned, but at the same time, that's a hypothetical built on a hypothetical. I think the most appropriate thing to do would be to respond if and when that occurs," he said.

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Tyler Axness, a Fargo Democrat who lost his Senate seat in November, offered a similar statement.

"You never rule anything out, but this is the first I've heard my name brought up on it," he said.

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