BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Bismarck businessman and former North Dakota Republican Party Chairman Gary Emineth announced Wednesday he's running for U.S. Senate, calling himself the party's best hope for toppling Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp.
"I'm in," Emineth told The Associated Press. "I can and will beat Heidi this fall."
Emineth, 59, said earlier this week he began considering a run after U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer passed up a challenge to Heitkamp. Emineth is a close friend of Cramer and ran the congressman's campaign in 2012.
"I fully expected him to run," Emineth said of Cramer. "When he didn't, I decided I might as well."
State Sen. Tom Campbell, a 58-year-old potato famer from the northeastern North Dakota town of Grafton, is the only other Republican in the race so far. Campbell has spent about $425,000 of his own money on advertising to raise his profile since August.
Heitkamp has raised about $6 million.
Republican Donald Trump carried North Dakota by 36 points in 2016 and remains popular, and both Emineth and Campbell are strong supporters. Emineth said he believes he'll have "plenty of money to tell the story that Heidi does not support the president."
State Sen. Kelly Armstrong, who heads North Dakota's GOP party, said Emineth's bid for the Senate seat "reshapes the race for the better."
"Competition breeds enthusiasm," Armstrong said. "I think having two candidates in the race now will make the eventual winner better able to take on Sen. Heitkamp."
Delegates will pick their preferred candidate at the North Dakota GOP convention in April.
Campbell said he welcomes Emineth's entry into the race.
"I feel very confident," Campbell said. "I've been running pretty aggressively for seven months now and people know me. I have great support and I will continue to focus on Sen. Heitkamp."
Emineth was a founding member of North Dakota's Tea Party Caucus in 2011. He resigned in 2012 to manage Cramer's primary campaign for the U.S. House.
Emineth served as the state GOP chair and member of the Republican National Committee from 2007-2010 but resigned, saying the demands of his business ventures didn't allow him the time he needed to oversee party operations.
Originally from Washburn in central North Dakota, Emineth was elected to the city council there in the early 1980s. He lost a bid for a state House seat in 1984.
Scott McNeil, who heads the state Democratic Party, said in a statement that "Emineth is a professional political hack who holds absolutely zero qualifications to serve in the U.S. Senate."
Emineth said he sold his interest a business that makes burritos for convenience stores earlier this month.
"The Senate was absolutely not on my radar and three weeks ago all I was doing was thinking about taking the winter off," he said. "Then this came up. My wife, Deone, said it was providence."