GRAFTON -- Tom Campbell says his cream-colored Chevrolet Tahoe has 28,000 more miles on it since the end of May. It has a cracked windshield and a clothing rack behind the driver’s seat -- telltale signs of the high-mileage lifestyle the state legislator and longtime farmer is leading nowadays.
But on the morning of Nov. 1, Campbell was at a potato packing plant near the edge of his native Grafton, a town of about 4,300 people north of Grand Forks. It’s a low, white building, and yet another outpost in the sprawling potato empire he built with his brothers.
Wearing a black pullover with “conservative farmer” stitched on the left breast, he walked past sacks, bags, pallets and giant “totes” of potatoes; he clutched bags of two varieties of red-skinned potatoes to show a reporter the fine differences. Campbell has spent decades becoming a local potato king, growing from the 130 acres planted in the first year using “pretty junky” equipment.
“I always say we started with a big prayer and a small loan,” Campbell said, sitting at the head of a boardroom table at Campbell Farms’ Grafton offices. “We didn’t have any cash down, didn’t have any cash flow, but our loan officer always said we had character.”
Now Campbell is taking another risk and pursuing one of the highest elected offices in the country.
Campbell is seeking the Republican nod to challenge incumbent Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., in a race that will draw national attention to this sparsely populated, conservative state. Republicans control the Senate by just two seats, and Campbell and the rest of the GOP see an opportunity to extend their slim majority.
But Democrats and at least one fellow Republican say Campbell doesn’t have a strong enough record in his nearly five-year stint in the North Dakota Legislature to match Heitkamp’s long public career.
“I don’t think Tom Campbell can beat Heidi in any way, shape or form,” state Rep. Roscoe Streyle, R-Minot, said. “I just don’t think he has what it takes, from a raising money standpoint, to being able to debate her, to a record that would show he’s done anything in the Legislature.”
Despite no formal opposition for the Republican nomination yet, Campbell has personally lent $425,000 to his campaign, according to public financial records, and is fashioning himself as a “conservative outsider,” despite his wealth and seat in the Legislature. But to climb to higher office, one ally said, Campbell will have to remake himself from a representative of a rural farming area to one who can think on a nationwide scale.
“He also has to get caught up on all the issues of the world and nation,” said Bruce Gjovig, a longtime Grand Forks Republican activist who described himself as a future donor and campaign adviser. “He understands, for example, health care from a Grafton hospital standpoint, but now he has to extrapolate that nationwide.”
Farm to Capitol
Campbell, 58, grew up the fifth child of seven near Grafton, watching his father deliver mail and tend a wheat and barley farm part time. Campbell and his brother, Bill, started a custom combining business while Campbell was still 16, leasing a new combine and traveling to Oklahoma to work their way north with the weather.
In Campbell’s first year out of high school, he and Bill bought a full complement of potato equipment to begin farming their own fields. Joined soon after by their other brother, Greg, they’ve since grown the operation to a “few thousand acres,” and ship throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Campbell pursued his economics degree around farming, loading up on courses at North Dakota State University during winters. By 2012, Campbell won a seat in the Legislature. His Senate district covers the eastern half of Walsh County and the northern and western regions of Grand Forks County.
But Campbell’s life almost took a decidedly different turn when he attended Catholic seminary at Notre Dame starting in 1980. He eventually decided it wasn’t for him -- the “celibacy issue” was a challenge -- and he married his wife, Lori, soon after. She splits time between Minneapolis and Grafton for work, and they have two adult children.
Faith continues to play a central role in Campbell’s life. He has been doing prison ministry work for more than 18 years, he said, and previously served on the board of the Grand Forks homeless shelter known as Northlands Rescue Mission.
Campbell has taken efforts at the shelter beyond the boardroom. During undercover visits there -- he didn’t shave for three weeks and smoked a cigarette to get into the role -- Campbell said he found some people were “taking advantage of a free meal and a free bed,” even though they could work.
“I just found out there were a lot of people there that shouldn’t have been there,” he said. “It was really frustrating to me because we were always short money and we couldn’t handle all the people that really needed help.”
Campbell said he has a “caring heart” for poor people but wants to “hold them accountable.” That “tough love” message is consistent with a bill he introduced earlier this year in the Legislature to develop a “suspicion-based drug testing” program for welfare benefit applicants. The bill was amended but defeated in the Senate.
“It’s just like when you go into a forest where it says, ‘Don’t feed the animals,’ because then they’ll become dependent on it,” he said, referring to welfare benefits. “I wanted to keep giving them their benefits so they would not be deprived of it, but yet put them in an environment where there’s no drugs.”
Campbell has been the primary sponsor of 18 bills over three legislative sessions, with eight becoming law. During that span, he signed on as a co-sponsor to more than 70 Senate and House bills and resolutions. Sen. Lonnie Laffen, R-Grand Forks, said Campbell manages to balance being “very compassionate” and conservative as a legislator.
“Sometimes that’s a hard line to walk,” he said. “If you want to keep spending down, sometimes that means programs that help people. But he has a good sense of balance that way that I admire.”
Alarmed at “conservative values being whittled away,” Campbell announced he would run for U.S. Senate a month before Heitkamp herself made it official. Since then, he has carpeted the airwaves with ads largely focused on his farming background.
Former Gov. Ed Schafer said Campbell isn’t making the mistake of believing everyone knows him. Campbell also explored a run for governor in 2015, which may have helped him gain wider name recognition.
If he gets the Republican nomination for Senate, Campbell will be “much better positioned to be able to use his resources to communicate with the people about what he wants to do and not have to spend all the time and energy to have people know who he is,” said Schafer, whose 1992 transition team included Campbell.
Unlike some other national Republicans, Campbell is unafraid to ally himself with Donald Trump, whom he credited for a “roaring” stock market and low unemployment. The president defeated Hillary Clinton in North Dakota by almost 36 percentage points a year ago, and polls released in July and October indicate he’s more popular here than much of the rest of the country.
Campbell said he’s “following a majority of North Dakota hard-working families’ agenda, which just happened to be aligned with Trump’s agenda.”
The Affordable Care Act needs to be repealed and replaced, Campbell says, though he wants to maintain insurance protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions. A top priority for the upcoming Farm Bill is crop insurance. He’s keeping a close eye on Trump’s willingness to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement, given North Dakota’s agricultural exports. He’s been pleased with Trump’s deregulatory agenda and his pick for Environmental Protection Agency administrator, but was highly critical of Heitkamp’s vote against repealing a methane emissions rule.
“I just think that it’s a common-sense thing that we need to have less regulation and less government and control ourselves,” Campbell said.
Campbell and his business have been at the center of contract disputes with major agricultural companies in the region. Lawsuits brought by J.R. Simplot Co., in 2005, and MCM Inc., in 2011, were both settled, according to court records.
Campbell also was involved in a legal dispute over Jefferson-Pilot Life Insurance Co.’s decision to rescind his mother’s policy after she died in 2006. The company said pending applications with other life insurers were not disclosed to Jefferson-Pilot.
The total amount of life insurance benefits applied for from all four of the companies was $14 million, according to court records. Campbell was the executor of his mother’s estate.
Campbell’s former attorney argued that the insurance agent may have known about issues in the policy applications, “but the Campbells did not,” according to court records. A federal judge said in 2008 that “there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the Campbells colluded with (the insurance agent) in failing to disclose” the applications to Jefferson-Pilot.
The two sides agreed to a confidential settlement through mediation and the case was dismissed, according to a September 2008 court filing.
Campbell called the episode a “tragedy” for his family and said they were “misled by our agent,” who later lost his license amid allegations that he forged Campbell’s mother’s signature on documents after she died, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
“There was no collusion,” Campbell said.
Not the last?
Campbell is the first but perhaps not the last Republican to jump into the North Dakota Senate race, given that a handful of others are in the mix. Trump “strongly encouraged” Rep. Kevin Cramer to consider joining the race recently, but he won’t make a decision before the tax reform legislation’s fate is decided.
Despite Campbell’s enthusiasm for White House policies, it’s not clear what Trump thinks of him. When the president visited Mandan to tout his tax plan, he was joined on stage by none other than Heitkamp, who Trump called a “good woman,” stoking speculation that he had hurt his own party’s chances in unseating her.
But Campbell said it was an example of Heitkamp’s disconnect from North Dakota voters.
“It was a shame that our president of the United States had to take one full day off … to let Heidi Heitkamp know what her constituents really wanted,” he said.
Pressed on Trump’s interaction with Heitkamp -- and if it meant Trump was out of step with North Dakota politics -- Campbell insisted the president sent Heitkamp a message.
“It may seem like I may be frustrated, but in the end, Trump, he's a doer, he gets things done,” Campbell said. “And he's frustrated right now because he's running into people like Senator Heitkamp.”
A spokesman for Heitkamp deferred comment to the state Democratic-NPL Party. Party spokesman Daniel Tick called Campbell’s time in the state Senate “ineffective” and said he’s a “political insider who’s willing to spend his personal fortune on self-promoting TV ads, but refuses to address important issues for North Dakota.”
Campbell is undeterred. And for all the talk about Heitkamp, it’s his quest for name recognition and his party’s support that will have to come first. Now, crisscrossing North Dakota in his windshield-cracked Tahoe, Campbell senses it’s within his grasp.
“Nobody can outwork me,” he said. “There’s not enough hours in the day.”