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Mund sees uphill battle in congressional bid; former Miss America cites concerns in abortion ruling

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Former Miss America Cara Mund says she is running for Congress due to her desires to preserve abortion rights and to be the first North Dakota woman elected to the seat.

Mund, 28, was the first North Dakotan to win the Miss America title, in 2017. The Bismarck native is a 2016 Brown University alumna and recently graduated with honors from Harvard Law School.

She announced on Saturday her efforts to gather the 1,000 signatures needed by Sept. 6 to make the November ballot as an independent candidate for the state's lone U.S. House seat. She would square off against Republican incumbent Kelly Armstrong and Democrat Mark Haugen.

"I already know it's an uphill battle, and some people likely aren't even going to vote for me because they think there's no shot, but you don't know until you try," Mund said. "I think the best part is I can take the best of both parties and find what's best for North Dakotans."

Abortion ruling

The House race interested Mund for being "the people's house." She said she's also disappointed in Armstrong's voting record. A third reason she cites is her expectation that the next Congress will "probably, hopefully" bring forth legislation to try to make federal law the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

The U.S. Supreme Court in June overturned the constitutional right to an abortion, which triggered a state abortion ban in North Dakota that's set to take effect later this month. 

Mund refers to abortion rights as "privacy rights," saying, "I don't feel comfortable telling another woman what she can and cannot do. I don't think the government should tell a woman what she can and cannot do."

She's concerned about enforcement of abortion bans, saying, "Just because we give it back to the states and we have the trigger laws doesn't mean abortions aren't going to happen, but we want to do what we can to protect our people, and trying to make sure that if that is an option or something a woman is going to do, she has a safe environment where she is supported by a doctor."

She said she also is concerned about the ruling opening the door to rolling back decisions on rights to same-sex marriage and contraceptives.

"If we're going to allow the government in our bedrooms, in our doctor's appointments, where are they going to try to go next? What are they going to try to take away next?" Mund said.

Armstrong said he supports the court's ruling, and said the state Legislature would be a better place from which to seek change for abortion rights.

Haugen told The Associated Press that “If she’s pro-choice, then she’s running to the left of me on that issue.”

Opponents

Armstrong, a former Dickinson-area state senator who was first elected to Congress in 2018, expects Mund to secure the signatures and be a candidate. Her name recognition "doesn't change what we do," he said. 

"She's obviously well-known in North Dakota, a Brown undergrad, a Harvard graduate," Armstrong told the Tribune. "We'll take it seriously. We take every opponent seriously."

Mund said she respects Armstrong and plans to run "a race of integrity." But she also criticized several of his recent votes, citing his opposition to the Federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Infant Formula Supplemental Appropriations Act and a bill capping insulin costs. 

Armstrong said he opposed the infrastructure package for its debt consequences, and called the infant formula bill "a money slush fund bill" to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 

Haugen, a University of Mary graduate adviser in Bismarck who has long worked as a paramedic, didn't respond to a Tribune phone message seeking comment on Mund's campaign. 

Experience

Mund rejects criticism she's heard that she doesn't have experience for Congress. 

She cites her starting of a decadelong charity fashion show at age 14, her involvement at Brown leading groups and running a dance company, her work as the National Goodwill Ambassador for the Children's Miracle Network Hospitals, her work with the United Service Organizations, her time spent with soldiers and veterans, and her Harvard accolades, including securing an acquittal at trial.

"I have the leadership skills. I have the background in government. I know the importance of upholding our Constitution. I recognize case law," Mund said.

She said she is her own campaign manager, speech writer, treasurer and social media coordinator.

"If anything I know that when I go for something, I don't do it unless I'm 100% in and I know I'm ready," Mund said. 

She hopes her Miss America name recognition will help her, but said it comes with a stereotype, especially in national media.

"It's always 'Miss America runs for Congress.' It's not 'Harvard Law School grad runs for Congress,'" Mund said. She said she's proud of her former title, but more so for being the first North Dakotan to win. 

In the last few weeks of her reign as Miss America, Mund drew national attention for criticizing the Miss America Organization, claiming she had been bullied and silenced by leadership. Board Chairwoman Gretchen Carlson later resigned.

Mund acknowledges her "uphill battle" as an independent, but also as a woman for a seat that has always been held by men. She cited the vast majority of men in state elected office, including "one of the most jarring things to me" being a recent press conference of state leaders who were all men. 

"There are no women in this sphere, and no women's voices are being heard," Mund said. 

North Dakota has elected one woman to federal office: former U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who served from 2013-19. 

'In the middle'

Mund rejects being associated with a political party, saying, "If we want to get any policy done, there must be compromise, there must be middle ground."

She said she has avoided even wearing blue and red clothing to not give the impression she is a Democrat or Republican, respectively. 

"At the end of the day, I genuinely do not think I am a one-way street. I'm very much in the middle," she said.

She called U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., for whom she once interned, "an incredible boss, an incredible leader."

She acknowledged North Dakota as a "very Republican state," and disagrees with the state Republican Party's new rule requiring candidates seeking the supermajority party's endorsement to pay fees, ranging from $2,500 for statewide office to $5,000 for U.S. Senate and governor.

"I don't think I should have to pay my way for public office," Mund said. "I think I should have to earn it, and that's why the independent seemed so appealing to me because I'm not going to pay to be on the ballot, I'm going to put the work in."

Party Chairman Perrie Schafer has said the fees are meant to help with costs and ensure candidates can raise money and support. But other Republicans have said the fees appear prohibitive of newcomers and protective of incumbents. Former GOP Gov. Ed Schafer has expressed opposition to the fees.

Mund said she would have considered seeking the GOP endorsement if there were no fee.

She declined to say for whom she voted in the 2020 congressional races, but said she has voted for Democrats and Republicans. 

Chances?

Mund has "built-in" North Dakota celebrity name recognition as a former Miss America, and her run likely will bring national attention to the race, according to University of North Dakota Professor of Political Science & Public Administration Mark Jendrysik.

But she is challenging a Republican incumbent who has won landslide victories in a deep-red state, he added.

It's also unclear what financial resources she might have to support a campaign amid a dwindling election season with fewer than three months to go, he said.

"It will be an interesting thing to see how many votes she gets, but I doubt that she will dislodge the long-serving representative in the state given the tendency of people here to vote for the Republican Party at the current time," Jendrysik said.

Independents "can sometimes make a splash," especially if well-known, he said, citing former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, a former professional wrestler and actor who won election in 1998 as a Reform Party candidate.

"I'm not sure that's something that really will appeal here," Jendrysik said. Armstrong has "a strong appeal to the voters" and the advantage of incumbency, he said.

"I just don't see someone as a relative political novice without large-scale, personal wealth to finance a campaign at this late hour -- I just don't see that as making a major effect on the campaign," Jendrysik said. "Can she get traction on issues? I don't think so. That seems unlikely. The question becomes, then, how will she present herself? What sort of policy positions will she take? And I think it's just very late right now to make a case to the voters."

Mund said her decision to run was strategic. She made a point of announcing her candidacy on the 57th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed discriminatory obstacles to voting.

"This was thought out. It was planned on my behalf. I've been thinking about this for a while," she said. 

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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