North Dakota Congressman reflects on early days of his political activism, Republican dominance in state and his support of President Trump
U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., remembers a time in North Dakota when it wasn’t cool to be a Republican.
My, how the tables have turned.
Cramer, the featured speaker for this year’s Frank Wenstrom Lecture at the University of North Dakota’s Gorecki Alumni Center, spent more than an hour Tuesday night taking his audience on a philosophical ride through the history of American politics, with a detour through the North Dakota Republican Party’s resurgence in the early 1990s (which remains strong today) and changes in populace ideology that fueled it.
The discussion also touched on Cramer’s strong support for President Donald Trump, U.S. intervention in Syria and other hot-button issues of the day.
Cramer talked at length about his early days as a political activist in North Dakota — a time when Democrats ruled the state’s political landscape.
He said when he came on board as the then-youngest state GOP party chairman in the nation in the early ‘90s, all but one of the state’s elected offices were held by Democrats. Furthermore, Democrats had held 28 of the previous 32 North Dakota governorships up to that point.
But the 1992 gubernatorial victory of Ed Schafer, who would go on to serve as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under President George W. Bush and then as interim UND president in 2016, broke the Democratic stranglehold on that office and ushered in a new era of GOP dominance in the state.
There has not been a Democratic governor since Schafer, who Cramer referred to as “North Dakota’s Ronald Reagan.”
Bottom line, Cramer said, the tides of political sentiment can change very quickly if parties in power aren’t cognizant of what’s taking place around them.
“It is very clear to me that none of us are entitled to these jobs,” Cramer said. “That should serve as inspiration to Democrats who may think that things seem hopeless now.
“All we’ve done since that time is win elections, but I know full well that the pendulum swings. When a window opens, it can close in a hurry.”
Cramer attributes the sudden shift in political support in the state to a shift that had started taking place within North Dakota’s largest economic sector at the time: agriculture. He explained that farmers and producers in the state had begun to change their industry from a “needy” one to a more dynamic, entrepreneurial practice.
Farmers all of a sudden had the ability to keep track of global markets and make production decisions based off their own analyses.
“The Democratic Party …. didn’t see something happening right in front of them,” he said. “In fact, Democrats (in this state) still see agriculture as this needy thing.”
Cramer said, in contrast, farmers want only a modest safety net without a lot of regulatory strings.
A lot of the same innovative thinking started taking hold in the energy sectors as well. And today, he said, North Dakota’s economy has even more going for it with advances in UAS technology and biomedical research.
“All of these things are happening in concert with knowledge centers such as UND providing the tools for more dynamic economic development than ever before,” Cramer said.
Referring to UND later in his lecture, Cramer added, “This is the absolute epicenter of the American economy.”
Cramer explained that this newfound economic self-reliance among North Dakota industries and the overall electorate has, thus far, evaded the Democratic consciousness in the state.
Playing off this ideological shift as well as a perceived anti-establishment movement bubbling under the surface, Cramer said he tried something “unthinkable” when running for his current Congressional seat. He skipped the normal nominating process, did not seek his party’s endorsement and opted instead to run against the party’s endorsed candidate.
More recently, North Dakota’s current governor, Doug Burgum, a Republican, did the same thing.
“This might become a trend, and I hope it does because government is always best when it’s inclusive rather than exclusive, Cramer said.
Trumpster in chief
The conversation then turned quickly to his support for another populist upstart in Donald Trump.; Cramer said his support for Trump started with a simple straw poll in which he vowed to back the GOP presidential candidate who came out on top. Of course, it was Trump.
“I supported Donald Trump before it was cool,” he said only half joking.
Cramer’s staunch support for Trump has garnered him a spot on the U.S. House Conference Steering Committee, where he looks out for representation from small states such as North Dakota. The committee also plays a role in assigning chairmanships.
Cramer also has found himself as a key adviser to Trump on energy and agricultural policy issues.
“My life has changed drastically in that sense,” he said.
Cramer also took questions from the audience on current events and other issues with which Congress is wrestling.
Cramer defended recent U.S. military actions in Syria, saying that the alleged chemical attacks on the people of Syria by the ruling regime “demanded a response.” He added that Trump’s willingness to exert force around the world does not contradict with the president’s “America first” campaign promise.
“(Trump) never said that we don’t have any responsibility in the world,” Cramer said.
Other topics addressed were Cramer’s views on freedom of expression and freedom of the press, Internet privacy and regulation, whether access to healthcare is a fundamental right or privilege, and his stance on proposed cuts to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Cramer said he does not favor cuts to the NIH, which serves as a valuable source of research funding for institutions such as UND. Rather he has signed a letter calling for a $2 billion increase to the NIH budget, saying he could make a good business case for research and development generated from NIH funds spent in North Dakota.
He added that the potential good that comes from developing cures for diseases is another reason for increased support for the NIH.
“It front-loads expenses to save forever,” Cramer said. “Cures are a lot cheaper than fighting diseases for years.”
About the Frank Wenstrom Lecture:
The Frank Wenstrom Lecture is an annual event sponsored by the UND Department of Political Science and Public Administration. Named for the late Frank A. Wenstrom, it is meant to highlight topics of public services and politics affecting the state of North Dakota. Wenstrom, a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and state legislator, served as president of North Dakota’s second Constitution Convention.