BISMARCK, N.D. — North Dakota Republicans gather for their convention this weekend, seeking to build excitement for Kevin Cramer's bid to wrest control of a critical Senate seat from popular Democrat Heidi Heitkamp.
"We absolutely need to keep building momentum for the fall," said state party chairman Rick Berg, who lost to Heitkamp in 2012 by less than 3,000 votes.
Republicans nationally see the race as perhaps their best chance for a pickup in a closely divided Senate, given Heitkamp's narrow victory six years ago and North Dakota's conservative identity. Berg said the more than 1,500 delegates expected to gather at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks will be urged to help Cramer in the following months.
"This is not rocket science," Berg said. "We need to make sure everyone focuses on the issues and that people understand what a Republican vote means in the U.S. Senate and what a Democrat's vote means."
"Little old North Dakota ... we have the opportunity to provide a sea of change for the country," Berg said.
The convention's other main order of business is endorsing a candidate for Cramer's House seat, with state Sens. Kelly Armstrong and Tom Campbell among several hopefuls. That comes Saturday, along with a keynote address by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Warmup activities get underway Friday, when candidates begin manning booths and mingle with delegates to coax support.
While Cramer's endorsement is a formality, the House race has had plenty of intrigue.
Campbell, a wealthy potato farmer from Grafton, spent more than $750,000 of his own money on a Senate campaign starting last summer, only to be effectively forced out of the race when Republicans finally prevailed on Cramer to challenge Heitkamp.
Campbell drew negative headlines last month with the revelation that he was paying convention registration fees for some delegates. The move is permitted by party rules, but some Republicans — and Armstrong — said it could be seen as vote-buying in an endorsement battle. Though Armstrong had covered a handful of registrations of family members, Campbell had covered far more.
Campbell said the flap was "overplayed" by the media.
Tiffany Abentroth, a former U.S. Marine and a political newcomer, is among a handful of other candidates vying for endorsement.
Armstrong, a lawyer and the party's former chairman, stepped down from that post in February to run for the House seat.
The endorsement may not settle the candidate. It guarantees the winner a spot on the June 12 primary ballot and party support, but losing candidates can still run in a primary. Armstrong has said he won't run without endorsement, but Campbell told The Associated Press this week he hasn't ruled out going to a primary fight.
GOP convention delegates also must decide whether to dump Secretary of State All Jaeger in favor of Mandan businessman Will Gardner. Jaeger has served more than two decades in the office that is best known for supervising elections.
Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, Tax Commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger, Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring and Public Service Commissioners Randy Christmann and Brian Kroshus are unopposed for endorsement.
Democrats held their convention last month in Grand Forks, endorsing Mac Schneider for Congress, state Rep. Joshua Boschee for secretary of state, state Sen. Jim Dotzenrod for agriculture commissioner, David Thompson for attorney general, Kylie Oversen for tax commissioner, and Casey Buchmann and Jean Brandt for public service commissioners.