By now, most of the voters in America are well aware of how nasty political campaigning has become. It seems as if there are endless comments from one side or another, and many of them are negative and have very little to do with the work of running the local, state and federal governments. Muckraking, mud slinging, accusatory language…sadly, it is part of the political campaigning system.
So, voters in North Dakota were not at all surprised when the 2018 election cycle had its fair share of such negative commentary running between the different candidates. However, the state was exceptional for the competitiveness in the senate race.
The Real Clear Politics website gives a good bit of background as to why, saying: “For decades, this state was as solidly Republican as the South was Democratic. But the North Dakota Republican Party was a very different kind of Republican Party from the one we’re accustomed to today. Its economic policies were dictated by the Non Partisan League, a socialist group that dominated politics in the Great Plains during the first half of the 20th century. And so, North Dakota produced Republican senators such as Gerald Nye, who were generally supportive of the New Deal but were also skeptical of foreign entanglements. The state-owned grain silos and bank grew out of the actions of this Republican Party. But after the Roosevelt administration, such progressive impulses were largely confined to the Democratic Party, which began to grow in the state…
Democrats were old-school populists, railing against Wall Street and excessive government borrowing. A fixture in North Dakota politics since the 1960s, Dorgan decided to call it a career in 2010, while voters turned out Pomeroy after two decades in the House. Conrad likewise opted to retire in 2012, and many anticipated that the race would be a pickup for Republicans.
But Republican nominee Rick Berg underwhelmed, while the Democrats rallied around former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp, who proved to be a fiery campaigner and a good fit for the state. She narrowly won and has compiled a moderately liberal record in the Senate.”
However, by February of 2018, this same outlet noted that “With the announcement that 3-term representative Kevin Cramer will challenge Heitkamp, the competitiveness of this race just increased exponentially. Heitkamp is popular, but Cramer has won repeatedly in the same state, by increasingly large margins.”
By October, experts determined that the race by Heitkamp was done and that her position 15 points behind Mr. Cramer was a sign she would not hold the seat. The experts were correct, but it was not an easy slide into the senate seat for Cramer, and he faced several sticky issues along the way.
The problems that manifested during the campaign include serious accusations around misuse of campaign funds, being in the pocket of billionaire energy executive Harold Hamm, and leaning towards NRA initiatives due to their heavy backing of his campaign.
Perhaps the worst of the accusations (and this is true for any modern politician) is that he was “in the pocket” of major donors. It is accusations of this type, whether out in the open or of the “dark money” variety that have so many voters worried about the health of American democracy.
Why? Because enormous campaign contributions are a relatively new entity in American politics.
Government and campaign finance watchdogs have tracked “spending of this kind (in which groups did not reveal their donors) climb[ing] rapidly from five million dollars in the year 2006 to more than three hundred million dollars in 2012.”
this sort of growth is an obvious sign of outside and/or corporate influence, since most donors could not increase contributions by 600% in such a short span. As noted, these are contributions from mega-rich donors, that many feel are “effectively in control of American politics, writing six- and seven-figure checks to super PAC’s to support ad campaigns that confuse viewers and distort the views and records of candidates,” as one source said.
Donors of this caliber rarely make obvious steps to interfere but will often use their influence for “subtle things that are less top of mind, less likely to be in the news — some amendment tucked into a larger bill…[and] greater access for friendly lobbyists.”
Backing by the mega-rich has been empowered thanks to the 2010 Supreme Court ruling known as the Citizens United ruling, in which the Court held that “the free speech clause of the first amendment prohibits the government from restricting corporations from making political expenditures.”
Also, changes in IRS rules (made in 2017) upheld the rights of PACs (Political Action Committees) and SuperPACs to keep their lists of donors confidential. This was something that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin argued in favor of protecting when the Senate narrowly passed a Resolution to overturn the rule, indicating that it prevented any confidential information from being leaked by the IRS.
As the Open Secrets Website reported in 2018, the Senate voted to “prevent ‘dark money’ from getting even darker.” They had managed to take the first step towards tossing out the new “Treasury Department policy that no longer requires some 501(c) tax-exempt nonprofits — including politically active 501(c)(4) ‘dark money’ groups — to disclose donor names and addresses in tax returns submitted to the IRS.”
To Mr. Mnuchin’s great discredit, there was only a single instance of leaking, when “the IRS posted unredacted tax forms revealing donors to the Republican Governors Association Public Policy Committee.” Prior to the change in IRS rules, all names and addresses of donors were reported to the IRS, and it was the responsibility of the IRS to maintain confidentiality.
Sadly, the resolution did not pass the House and the anonymity rule remains, making it almost impossible to discover undue influence.
The presence of PACs and SuperPACs are not all dark money sources, and the two groupsdiffer only slightly in how they can or cannot operate. PACs can donate to parties or candidates, while SuperPACs can only spend on marketing and ads. They are unlimited in the amounts they can accept or spend, as well. Both can protect their donors’ anonymity because both are non-profit.
They can be sources of dark money, though, because they can be put to use as a means of channeling money into war chests, though there are a lot of tricks used to achieve such ends.
Whether anonymous and dark, or entirely open and obvious, donations and support can create influence. We are aware of the accusations against Senator Cramer, and we are going to use the remainder of this article to explore his activities, voting records, and legislative actions to see if there is influence that would reveal him leaning towards his donors.
Naturally, we cannot simply leap to conclusions, and so will look at several key items to determine if there are any questionable links between his backers and his work in the Senate. We’ll look at:
- The Senator’s publicly stated priorities and issues
- Senator Cramer’s committee and caucus activities
- The Senator’s key sources of campaign funding
- Senator Cramer’s most recent legislative items sponsored or co-sponsored
We are also going to examine other facts, including bipartisanship ratings, conservative rankings, and more, to reach conclusions.
For example, Senator Cramer does not appear on the Lugar Center Bipartisanship Index yet because he was not in the 115th Congress (which has the latest rankings). However, GovTrack indicates that he is in the 18th percentile among all representatives where joining bipartisan bills is concerned, but cosponsored the 11th most bills compared to other Republicans.
His “Trump Score” from FiveThirtyEight for the 116th Congress is marginally higher than anticipated at almost 99%, meaning that he supports President Trump’s policies, most of the time. The Conservative Review, gives him a failing grade of F, and identifies him at the 33 percentile point for his dedication to conservative policies.
His approval ratings in the Senate are low, as well, with a rank of 37 out of 100 senators and a net approval of 60 from his party.
So, he is a loyal member of the Republican party, he may not be as conservative as some like. This does not indicate anything worrying about him, though, and it will take a look at far more data to clarify whether he is influenced by backers.
About Senator Kevin Cramer
Born in 1961 in North Dakota, he attended college in Minnesota where he earned a BA and then on to the University of Mary in Bismarck, where he obtained a master’s in management. He entered politics in his 20s, campaigning for a senator and then becoming the chair of his state’s Republican Party in the 1990s. He was appointed as state tourism director by the governor in 1993 and moved on to Economic Development Director a few years after.
He ran for but lost a race for a seat in the House, but tried again in 2012 and was elected to three terms before seeking election to the Senate in 2018.
His official website describes the senator as seeing “constituent outreach a top priority, describing interacting with the public as ‘the best part of public service.’ According to Legistorm, the Capitol Hill government issues website, Cramer held more town halls than any other Member during several of his years in the House.”
It also describes him as working “to ensure North Dakotans enjoy some of the lowest utility rates in the United States, enhancing their competitive position in the global marketplace. An energy policy expert, Cramer understands America’s energy security is integral to national and economic security.
A strong advocate for the free market system, Cramer has a proven record of cutting and balancing budgets, encouraging the private sector through limited, common sense regulations and limited government.”
ProPublica tracks politicians and how they vote, the most common subjects of bills they sponsor and even what issues are the most common in their press releases. They have identified that Senator Cramer focuses on the following legislative items:
- Public Lands and Natural Resources
- Science, Technology, and Communications
- Finance and Financial Sector
- Armed Forces and National Security
They have also kept track of the subjects of press releases from his office, which include:
- Environmental Protection
- Government Operations and Politics
- Agriculture and Food
- Armed Forces and National Security
- Foreign Trade and International Finance
There is a bit of overlap, but it requires much more data to see alignment between his actions, campaign finance, and constituents.
Senator Cramer’s Committee Work
For the 116th Congress, Senator Cramer is assigned to the following committees and subcommittees:
- Committee on Armed Services
- Subcommittee on Airland
- Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities
- Subcommittee on Strategic Forces
- Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs
- Subcommittee on Economic Policy
- Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Protection
- Subcommittee on Housing, Transportation, and Community Development
- Committee on Environment and Public Works
- Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety
- Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water, and Wildlife (Chairman)
- Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure
- Committee on the Budget
- Committee on Veterans’ Affairs
His participation in such committees gives him a lot of power and sway, which means it is imperative to look for any signs that large scale donors might be seeking to benefit from the Senator’s positioning in committees.
The Top Industries Funding Senator Cramer Campaign Efforts
In 2018, Senator Cramer’s campaign raised $5,947,201.55 and spent $6,144,487.16, leaving more than one million dollars in debt, which has already been eliminated. His support came from an array of industries, and we’ll look at those contributors in three distinct groupings:
- The industries in which the Senator was a “favorite,” or top recipient in the last campaign cycle (2018)
- The industries that contributed the most substantial amount of financial support
- Individual organizations that donated the most
According to the Open Secrets Website, Senator Cramer was an industry favorite in three segments:
- Coal mining (#1)
- Natural Gas transmission & distribution (#1)
- Oil & Gas (#2)
He also received strong support from other industries, and the 20 sectors that gave the most, overall, in 2018 were (in ranking order):
- Securities & Investment
- Oil & Gas
- Leadership PACs
- Real Estate
- Crop Production & Basic Processing
- Commercial Banks
- Miscellaneous Manufacturing & Distributing
- Health Professionals
- Miscellaneous Finance
- Lawyers/Law Firms
- Miscellaneous Business
- General Contractors
- Food & Beverage
- Building Materials & Equipment
- Special Trade Contractors
Finally, there were the companies and other groups that gave, individually. However, none of them donated directly to the campaign; instead, they worked with PACs or had direct employee contributions for the 2018 election, and were:
- Energy Transfer Partners – “A company engaged in natural gas and propane pipeline transport. It is organized in Delaware and headquartered in Dallas, Texas. It was founded in 1995 by Ray Davis and Kelcy Warren, who remains Chairman and CEO. It owns a 36.4% interest in Dakota Access, LLC, the company responsible for developing the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline.”
- National Republican Senatorial Committee – “The Republican Hill committee for the United States Senate, working to elect Republicans to that body. The NRSC was founded in 1916 as the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. It was reorganized in 1948 and renamed the National Republican Senatorial Committee…The NRSC helps elect Republican incumbents and challengers primarily through fundraising. Other services include campaign activities using media and communications, as well as research and strategy planning.
- Ellingson Companies – North Dakota based firm that “specializes in trenchless solutions and agriculture drainage technologies in southeast Minnesota, North Dakota and the nation.”
- Alliance Coal – “A diversified producer and marketer of steam coal to major United States utilities and industrial users. ARLP, the nation’s first publicly traded master limited partnership involved in the production and marketing of coal, began mining operations in 1971 and, since then, has grown through acquisitions and internal development to become the second-largest coal producer in the eastern United States.”
- State of North Dakota
- Blackstone Group “An American multinational private equity, alternative asset management, and financial services firm based in New York City. As the largest alternative investment firm in the world, Blackstone specializes in private equity, credit and hedge fund investment strategies…Blackstone’s private equity business has been one of the largest investors in leveraged buyouts in the last decade, while its real estate business has actively acquired commercial real estate.”
- Marathon Oil – “An American petroleum and natural gas exploration and production company headquartered in the Marathon Oil Tower in Houston, Texas.”
- Alticor Inc – “A privately owned American corporation which is run by the DeVos family and the Van Andel family. It was established in 1999 to serve as the parent company for a handful of business ventures, most notably the multi-level marketing company Amway and Amway Global, and a manufacturing and distribution company, Access Business Group.”
- Yancy Brothers Co – Since 1914 “The Nation’s Oldest Caterpillar Dealer” has provided Georgia customers with the highest quality products and services in the industry.
- Oasis Petroleum– “A company engaged in hydrocarbon exploration and hydraulic fracturing in the Williston Basin as well as in the Delaware Basin of the Permian Basin in West Texas. It is organized in Delaware and headquartered in Houston, Texas, with an office in Williston, North Dakota.”
That list can look problematic as it does emphasize industries dominant in his state, and which supplied huge sums. However, we cannot make any further judgements without first digging into some of the legislative items he has introduced this Congress.
9 Legislative Items Senator Cramer Has Sponsored During the 116th Congress – To Date
For the 116th Congress, to date, Senator Cramer has 258 pieces of legislation; he sponsored only 14 thus far and co-sponsored the remaining 244. The Senator’s official Congressional page indicates that his emphasis in this Congress has been primarily on Public Lands and Natural Resources, taxation, Armed Forces and National Security, health and the financial sector.
A bipartisan bill, this legislation was introduced by Senator Cramer on February 12 with the aim of establishing “an office dedicated to helping consumers gain access in previously unreached areas. As the Trump administration continues to make progress on expanding rural broadband, Congress needs to remove unnecessary barriers so more rural Americans can receive the access they need,” according to Senator Cramer.
The bill would achieve its goals by requiring the “Federal Communications Commission to establish the Office of Rural Broadband, which would coordinate with USDA’s Rural Utilities Service, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and the Universal Service Administrative Company to maintain information on current rural broadband initiatives and programs and to ensure their success. It would also coordinate with agencies to remove barriers to broadband deployment to track internet subscription rates in rural areas so we can better understand the problems rural Americans face to accessing broadband.”
Democratic senator Amy Klobuchar, a cosponsor of the legislation, said, “Broadband infrastructure is critical in our 21st century economy, but many rural communities still lack access to reliable, high speed internet. Establishing an Office of Rural Telecommunications within the Federal Communications Commission will allow for more effective coordination as we deploy broadband infrastructure to ensure that every family has access to high speed internet, no matter where they live.”
The bill has four other cosponsors and was read twice and referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
Introduced by Senator Cramer on March 14, this bill would “ensure large financial institutions cannot deny service to certain constitutionally-protected industries that are fully compliant with all laws and statutes,” according to a press release about it.
As that news item went on to explain, this legislation “focuses on three industries where the most egregious examples of legal commerce being illegalized by large financial institutions have been documented: firearms, ammunition, and sporting goods. Because the intent is not to force financial institutions to do business with certain industries- but rather to ensure that legal commerce is not illegalized- this legislation exempts financial institutions with less than $10 billion in assets.”
Explaining why he sponsored the bill, Senator Cramer said, “A small number of banks controlling most of the financial sector could effectively illegalize legal commerce by refusing to finance certain industries or process certain transactions. Look no further than pro-Second Amendment industries where such discrimination has already occurred. Big banks should not be the arbiters of constitutionality.”
Lawrence G. Keane, Senior Vice President and General Counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation also spoke of the legislation, saying that “American taxpayers need to be reassured their tax dollars that subsidize insurance and bailout policies for banking institutions aren’t weaponized in an attempt to eradicate a lawful industry because it has fallen out of favor with boardroom bureaucrats…[and that the legislation] guarantees social policies are debated and created by the elected officials Americans vote to represent their interests, not by faceless corporate boards representing the interest of the few.”
The bill was read twice and referred to the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs.
Another bipartisan item introduced by Senator Cramer, on March 14, this bill is meant to “honor the crewmembers who died in the sinking of the U.S.S. Frank E. Evans during the Vietnam War,” as noted in a news item from the Senator’s office.
According to that article, “The U.S.S. Frank E. Evans served multiple tours off the coast of Vietnam during the Vietnam War before being ordered to withdraw to participate in a South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) exercise. Although they were scheduled to return following the exercise, they collided with a friendly ship, which resulted in the death of 74 United States sailors.”
For their names to appear on Washington, D.C.’s Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Wall, however, they “must have died while participating- or providing direct support to- a combat mission en route, or returning from a target, within a combat zone. Because they were not doing so, the names of those who perished on the U.S.S. Frank E. Evans- even though they had just served and were scheduled to return- are not included on the memorial.”
Senator Cramer learned of this during a radio town hall in Fargo, from a family member of a sailor who died on the ship. He added this bill as an “amendment to last year’s National Defense Authorization Act to honor these crewmembers. While it passed in the House, it failed to be added to the Senate version or in the conference committee’s final version.”
Speaking about it before the Senate, Mr. Cramer said, “The 74 sailors who perished on the U.S.S. Frank E. Evans did so while serving our country. Their sacrifice- and that of their families- is worth not only remembering, but also being forever memorialized on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. alongside those with whom they served.”
The bill has 15 cosponsors and hearings about it were held by the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks on June 19.
S.Res.143 —A resolution recognizing Israeli-American culture and heritage and the contributions of the Israeli-American community to the United States
Introduced on April 4, with seven cosponsors, this Resolution seeks to recognize “the contributions of the Israeli-American community and condemning all forms of discrimination against them.”
An article from the explained that theTimes of Israel legislation “is the result of work by the Israeli-American Civic Action Network, a relatively young group that reflects the increased activism of Israeli Americans acting and lobbying independently from the organized Jewish-American community. It plans to lobby senators from both parties to pass the non-binding resolution. The Israeli-American Coalition for Action, the sister advocacy organization of the Israeli-American Council, originally initiated this legislation…The RJC helped Cramer in the last election, running ads against the Democratic incumbent, Heidi Heitkamp.”
This is one of those items that seems questionable as it relates so closely to campaign contributions.
However, that article also explained that “An official of the Civic Action Network said the resolution came about in part because of actions taken by the boycott Israel movement that target Israeli individuals simply because they are Israeli.”
It was referred to the Committee on the Judiciary.
Presented to the Senate on April 10, this bill will (if passed into law), “provide existing nuclear power plants with an investment tax credit,” according to a press release from one of the two cosponsors, Senator Ben Cardin.
A report on the bicameral bill by Daily Energy Insider says it “seeks to promote nuclear power through incentivization, opening a new investment tax credit for potential investments.
The bill builds itself on the reality that many other types of energy are already encouraged by similar tax credits: solar, wind, geothermal, fuel cell and combined heat and power all benefit from such incentives, but nuclear has fallen by the wayside. The Nuclear Powers America Act of 2019 would rectify that with a 30 percent credit for refueling costs and qualified nuclear power plant capital expenditures each year through 2023. After that, it would be gradually reduced each year until 2026, when it settles at a 10 percent credit…the bill could protect as many as 475,000 jobs …[and] that the results of this act’s passage would be three times the clean energy produced in the United States at half the cost per megawatt hour of other clean energy tax credits.”
Arguing in favor of the bill, Senator Cramer said, “To continue America’s energy revolution, we need to take an all-the-above approach. Nuclear power must remain viable if we are going to reduce carbon emissions. This industry accounts for nearly half a million jobs, one fifth of the energy supply, and 60 percent of the emission-free power in this country. An expert nuclear workforce is also vital to our national security. The Nuclear Powers America Act recognizes nuclear power’s important role and prioritizes its existence.” The bill was read twice and referred to the Committee on Finance.
Another bipartisan piece of legislation sponsored by Senator Cramer, he introduced it on April 30. This bill would “increase the ability of elderly middle-class Americans to give to charity without facing double taxation,” according to a press release about it from his office.
Speaking to the Senate, he said, “Current law allows elderly Americans to contribute previously-taxed funds in their IRA directly to qualified charities without facing double taxation. However, most middle-class Americans cannot do so because they need their IRA to last their entire retirement. Charitable life income plans allow retirees to transfer their IRA into an accessible trust that automatically donates any remaining funds to a charity of their choice. Unfortunately, that transfer is taxable, making it infeasible for any middle-class senior who cannot afford a cut to their retirement savings. The Legacy IRA Act exempts these transfers from taxation and makes it easier for middle-class Americans to give their life savings to a good cause.”
The bill’s cosponsor, Senator Debbie Stabenow said that “Our charitable organizations do such important work and depend on generous contributions from many American families. Our legislation cuts red tape in the tax code to make it easier for people to give to the charity of their choice.”
The bill has support from many “non-profit organizations that heavily rely on charitable donations,” including the American Heart Association, the Jewish Federations of North America, the National Catholic Development Conference and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, among others. It was read twice and referred to the Committee on Finance.
This bipartisan and bicameral bill sponsored by Senator Cramer was introduced on May 2 and is also known simply as the FLAIR Act. It seeks to “create a single database for lands owned by the federal government,” according to the Senator’s news release about the item.
Although it surprises many to discover this sort of listing does not already exist, it is a significant step in the right direction. According to Senator Cramer, “
We cannot expect our government to properly manage federal lands if it cannot even account for the land it has. The FLAIR Act eliminates duplication and conflicts between federal departments and increases transparency by creating a searchable system available to the public. This is a commonsense move that would improve management of federal lands and reduce the ambiguity that often bogs down the federal bureaucracy.”
The House sponsor, Representative Bruce Westerman also described the value of the bill, saying, “As families across the country know, you can’t come up with a household budget without first understanding how much you spend each month. Likewise, the federal government can’t address its infrastructure needs or maintenance backlogs without first knowing what property it controls. While this seems like a simple census, no streamlined method currently exists to catalog land, buildings and other government-owned property. The FLAIR Act would remedy this issue by providing a searchable, sustainable tool by which all real property assets are categorized and updated.”
The bill was read twice and referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
This bill was introduced on June 26 and is one of many pro-life bills Republicans have presented thus far in the 116th Congress. According to the Senator’s press release about it, the bill would “restrict federal funding for health care entities that do not respect all human life and patient rights…The unborn deserve the same rights as any other human being. All patients- from the unborn to the elderly- are given the unalienable right to life, but our current system too often denies them of it. Organizations that do not honor the right to life at any of its stages do not deserve taxpayer funds, and this bill reflects that truth.”
As explained further in the news release, the Act “seeks to show that the ideology that allows for the killing of the unborn or allows the recently born to die as a result of insufficient care, has implications for patients at all stages of life who are unable to advocate for themselves. It does this by first recognizing the unborn as patients, then restricting federal funding to any health care facility that does not protect the lives of all patients: from conception to natural death.”
It was read twice and referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
Introduced on July 25, it is still further bipartisan legislation backed by Senator Cramer. It would “reauthorize the Export-Import Bank for 10 years. The bank is set to expire on September 30th,” as a press release from the senator explains.
The background for this legislation is interesting, and shows that if Congress does not act, the “Export-Import Bank will expire on September 30th…The legislation provides for a quorum fix to ensure American exporters do not lose out on job-creating deals due to Congressional gridlock. The Bank lost its quorum in mid-2015, rendering it unable to consider major deals or implement necessary reforms to protect taxpayers and modernize its operations. The Senate finally restored a quorum last May. Cramer and Sinema’s bipartisan plan also increases the Export-Import Bank’s exposure cap over 7 years to $175 billion, ensuring the Bank can help close our trade deficit and compete with countries like China.”
It has 11 cosponsors, who feel the bank is critical to the economy “because it ensures our businesses can compete, and win, on a level playing field with foreign competitor. This bipartisan renewal provides certainty to employers across our country and represents a step away from Congress’s usual short-term crisis management.”
It was read twice and referred to the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs.
As we have seen, there is only one instance when it seems that the senator’s legislative actions were inspired by a donor, and yet it is not an action with huge repercussions or serious consequences. In all, Senator Cramer seems free of any questionable behaviors or unwanted overlaps between his activities and his financial supporters. Though he’s weathered his fair share of controversy in a short span of time, he has proven himself to be well above board and dedicated to his party’s principles and the needs of his constituency.