BISMARCK, N.D. – When Cara Mund was competing to become Miss North Dakota, a key part of her platform was increasing the number of women elected to political office. Later, after she became the state's first Miss America winner, she traveled the country to encourage women to use their voice to make an impact.
Fresh off Harvard Law School, Mund is taking on the job of candidate herself, running for North Dakota's U.S. House seat as an independent.
In doing so, Mund is gambling that her primary issue — support for abortion rights — along with her self-proclaimed outsider status and her celebrity can win over enough voters to unseat an incumbent tightly tied to the dominant oil industry in the reddest of states.
“I don’t think it’s impossible,” Mund said. “A lot of people are fed up.”
But Mund's hopes of an upset have to contend with some tough realities. She's raised about $20,000 since jumping into the race this summer, paltry compared to the $1.4 million GOP Rep. Kelly Armstrong banked in the cycle. She hasn't yet gotten — and may not get — help from national abortion rights groups.
And Republicans are hard at work to portray her as a Democrat in all but name, a near-toxic label in much of the state.
Democrats handed Republicans fuel for the attack when their own candidate, Mark Haugen, folded soon after Mund's entry. Haugen, who opposes abortion rights, cited pressure from his own party to get out. Longtime former Rep. Earl Pomeroy was among those who called Haugen, but he denied any pressure campaign; instead, Pomeroy said, Haugen was simply told he could not win.
Pomeroy and others said abortion rights stood to be a powerful issue for Mund. They pointed to a failed statewide ballot issue in 2014 that would have amended the state constitution to essentially end the procedure in the state, with more than 64% of voters rejecting it. The measure's sponsor, a Republican state senator, also was unseated by a Democrat in a conservative Bismarck district.
“I am certainly not predicting a victory here, but it’s going be an interesting election with a clean contrast,” Pomeroy said. “I think it’s because women are internalizing (the abortion issue) as a personal threat.”
Armstrong and fellow Republicans were dismissing Mund even before Haugen dropped out.
“Seems like people pretty high up in Democratic politics are excited about it,” Armstrong said when Mund first announced. "It doesn’t change anything we are doing.”
Armstrong, an attorney and former state party chairman, cruised to reelection two years ago with 69% of the vote. He acknowledged that abortion would drive Democrats and some moderate conservatives to Mund but said, “I just don't know what that number is.”
Mund has bristled at being called anything but an independent. “When they put that label on you, that's name-calling," she said.
She has said she likely would caucus with Republicans if elected. She would not say whom she supported for president in recent elections.
At Miss America in 2017, she said Trump was wrong to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accords that sought to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. And she's stood by the remarks — risky in oil- and coal-dependent North Dakota — even as Republicans have played them up.
“Yes, we have to rely on oil and gas right now, and it’s going to be quite some time that we continue to rely on it, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take additional steps to make sure it’s done in a safe manner and try to keep it as clean as possible,” she said.
More recently, she has said she disagreed with President Joe Biden on many policies, including student loan forgiveness. But she would have supported his infrastructure bill, which is slated to bring more than $2 billion in road funding to North Dakota. Armstrong opposed the bill.
Not all Republicans are discounting Mund. Dina Butcher, who coordinated Republican Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign in the state, said she can see Mund's appeal to moderates.
“The dynamics might be right for this young woman,” Butcher said. “I’m 82 and she’s 28 and we have a lot in common. I like her spunkiness, her self-confidence and her grasp of the issues."
Mund said she postponed a promising legal career — she said she passed the North Dakota bar in early September — and moved in with her parents as she seeks the House seat. The shoestring approach so far applies to financing her campaign as well. She said she has not received nor asked for money from abortion rights groups.
To supplement whatever ad buys she can manage, she's trying to build support through social media. She's also relying on her celebrity, granting interviews ranging from national networks to local high school newspapers and snapping up any invitation that comes her way.
At a rainy parade in Bismarck in September to celebrate the city’s 150th anniversary, Mund walked with supporters, breaking off from time to time to work the crowd. For some, it was Mund's proclaimed independence, as much as her support for abortion rights, that made her appealing.
That included Christine Baumann, 37, an administrator at an art nonprofit who came 100 miles from Minot to walk with Mund. Baumann said she's supported both Republicans and Democrats in the past, but Mund “really resonates” with her.
“I feel like she would represent me better than anyone else in Congress," she said.