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Representative Kevin Cramer (R-ND) speaks at the 2018 North Dakota Republican Party Convention in Grand Forks, North Dakota, U.S., April 7, 2018. Picture taken April 7, 2018. The party endorsed him for the U.S. Senate race against Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. REUTERS/Dan Koeck - RC16643EC480

GOP Rep. Cramer easily wins North Dakota Senate primary

BISMARCK, N.D. — U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, looking ahead to a November battle with Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp that could be key to control the chamber, cruised to an easy victory in Tuesday’s Republican Senate primary in North Dakota.

Cramer brushed aside a challenge from Air Force veteran Thomas O’Neill, who didn’t mount a major campaign.

“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.

Democrat Mac Schneider, a former state senator who was unopposed, awaited Armstrong.

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 weighed a challenge to Heitkamp for months before announcing earlier this year that he wouldn’t run. He later changed his mind and said President Donald 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 Trump 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.”

Voters were also picking local governing boards and other officials, but with few competitive races and no statewide ballot issues to stir interest, turnout was expected to be low. The ballot included four contested legislative primaries.

State Sen. Tom Campbell, a wealthy potato farmer who spent more than $750,000 of his own money on a Senate run before being squeezed out by Cramer, switched briefly to the House race before dropping out of that one, too. But his name still appeared on Tuesday’s ballot.

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