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Column: NDGOP vulnerable, but can Democrats capitalize?

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columnist Rob Port2 / 2

It may surprise you, given their dominance of elected office in recent years, but North Dakota's Republicans have some weaknesses heading into the 2018 election cycle.

The top of the list of vulnerables has to be Tax Commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger. In the 2014 election cycle I was the first to report on the incumbent's struggles with alcohol addiction. Rauschenberger took a leave of absence from his elected position to seek treatment and returned, just weeks ahead of Election Day, to win by more than 20 percentage points.

It was a redemption story, and a hopeful sign of a more forgiving attitude toward addiction from North Dakotans. But in September Rauschenberger was arrested for DUI. His blood alcohol content was more than doubled the legal limit.

Voters were forgiving of Rauschenberger last time, but the last time was the first time. And last time he wasn't caught driving a car.

The incumbent hasn't said whether he'll seek re-election. If he runs, he'll have to convince voters that he's got his demons licked.

Also vulnerable is Secretary of State Al Jaeger who is, by a country mile, the longest serving of our current statewide office holders. He's got two four-year terms on Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who has the second longest tenure.

Jaeger took office in 1992, the same year Bill Clinton was elected to his first term as president. The same year Jay Leno premiered as the host of The Tonight Show. By the end of his current term Jaeger will have been in office for 26 years.

The incumbent has told Republicans he's running for another term. Not everyone in the NDGOP is happy about it. There is trepidation that Jaeger's struggles to modernize his office, not to mention a slew of costly mistakes such as lost candidate paperwork and mishandling of ballot initiatives, could become campaign issues for an aggressive challenger.

North Dakotans really, really like voting for incumbents but there is growing unease in Republican circles that Jaeger may be outstaying his welcome.

The least vulnerable of the vulnerables is probably Public Service Commissioner Brian Kroshus. The former Bismarck Tribune publisher was appointed to his seat by Gov. Doug Burgum back in February. He's finishing Brian Kalk's term in office after Kalk took a job at the University of North Dakota's Energy and Environmental Research Center. There's no indication that Kroshus has been anything less than competent in his performance, but appointees are always seen as targets.

Who can Democrats run, though? Few good names come to mind.

Aaron Krauter, a long-time state lawmaker who was Sen. Heidi Heitkamp's running mate in her 2000 gubernatorial campaign, just finished out an eight-year stint at the USDA. He has said he'd like to get back into politics. He would be a strong, credible candidate for any office he chose to run for.

But he's also just one man.

If Dems want to capitalize on these Republican vulnerabilities they'll need to recruit credible challengers, something they haven't done well in years.

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