Rep. Cramer, a loyal Republican, is wary of Tea Party’s masterminds

Kevin Cramer finally made it to Washington through sheer perseverance. Politics is rarely kind to candidates who lose repeatedly, but Cramer is the exception to the rule. 

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A longtime fixture of state-level politics in North Dakota, he mounted two consecutive efforts against Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy in the 1990s, only to be decisively defeated both times. In 2010, with the Tea Party wave cresting, he hoped to get another shot at Pomeroy, but lost the Republican nomination to ultimate victor Rick Berg.

Berg lasted just two years, however, before deciding to launch a Senate campaign, leaving the seat open yet again. Undeterred by past failures, Cramer made another attempt, secured the nomination, and at long last won a seat in Washington.

“Those early runs were good for me,” Cramer told The Hill. “They toughened my skin up a little bit, hardened me to criticism, and taught me that there’s no substitute for hard work, and that failure doesn’t have to be permanent.”

Cramer has been battling in the political arena for most of his adult life, but as a young man he had different aspirations. Raised in a mainline Lutheran church, Cramer attended Concordia College in Minnesota and planned to become a minister. That plan fell out of favor as he felt the church’s beliefs and his own diverging (he is now an evangelical), but Cramer still speaks much as a minister would. He refers to public service as a “vocation” rather than a career, and uses Martin Luther’s doctrine of a “priesthood of all believers” to describe it as just another form of ministry.

“People cringe sometimes when I talk like this, but it’s just my heart,” Cramer said. “I really see the vocation of politics like I see every vocation, whether it’s being a reporter or serving in public life or being a plumber, as an extension of ministry.”

Cramer rose quickly in the Republican hierarchy after leaving Concordia. In 1991 he became state party chairman at just 30 years old. At that time, despite repeated Republican successes at the national level, the North Dakota Republican Party was at its nadir.

After a century of dominance, Republicans had lost the state Senate for the first time and controlled just three of 16 statewide offices. Under Cramer’s leadership, the party retook the governor’s mansion and Cramer shifted to being the state tourism director and later economic development director.

After his first two failed Congressional runs, he was appointed to the post of public service commissioner in 2003. He finally succeeded in winning an election when he secured a full six-year term in the post the following year.

This proved to be a useful office for Cramer to raise his profile. North Dakota’s Public Service Commission is responsible for regulations and permits in the state’s energy industry, and in 2008 a dramatic oil boom began in the state that has given it the fastest-growing economy in the nation.

The ongoing oil boom has boosted Cramer’s status in Washington, where he is eager to promote his state as a model for the rest of the nation.

“Eric Sevareid, the famous CBS newsman of the Vietnam War era, once called North Dakota ‘the large, rectangular blank spot on the nation’s mind,’ ” Cramer says. “I always say now we’re the rectangular stage under the nation’s spotlight.”

As North Dakota’s only representative, Cramer says he feels more like a “third senator,” which brings extra attention at home and extra responsibility in the capital. He serves on the Natural Resources and Science, Space, and Technology committees, where he is an avid proponent of energy development and the Keystone XL pipeline. During the August recess, he brought House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R- Va.) out to see the state’s oil fields in the Bakken formation.

While he has spoken at Tea Party rallies, Cramer expressed mixed feelings about the movement as it currently stands, suggesting that organizations have “co-opted” the Tea Party mantra and have used it to hurt Republicans more than Democrats.

“I love the movement … especially at the time [in 2009-10], it was truly spontaneous, it was truly grassroots. I think part of the problem today is that the Tea Party is less grassroots and more controlled by organizations who benefit from a fight more than they benefit from policy successes,” Cramer said.

He said that while he appreciated the Tea Party groups’ contribution to keeping the party disciplined, such discipline could go too far and leave the party without any wiggle room for policy successes.

Cramer also argues that conservatives must work to be a more upbeat and compassionate party, especially on social issues and immigration.

“If you’re a person of faith that is conservative, that’s pro-life, as I am, that believes strongly in traditional family values, as I do … then how we talk about them matters. Sometimes, we find ourselves as conservatives being angry when we should be joyful, finding ourselves being negative when we should be positive, because we have a positive message to send … We ought to be the most compassionate people in the world.”

Cramer says that having strong positions is not problematic if it is coupled with general goodwill and an openness to wildly different views. Along with fellow Republicans, he refers to Ami Bera (D-Calif.) and Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) as good friends of his in the chamber.

“While I have these very strong views, and I don’t shy away from them, I’m not afraid to talk about them. I love listening to other people’s views too. I enjoy the debate … I haven’t met a single person in Congress yet that I dislike,” he said. “It’s not about moderating your views, it’s about being able to talk about them and defending them in a way that’s uplifting to people.”

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