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Mike Jacobs: N.D. politics take a turn for the dull side

This is a far cry from the historical tumult of North Dakota politics historically. Each of the 12 decades of the state’s history has had political battles.

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs
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Well, folks! We might as well face it: 2022 is shaping up to be the dullest election year in North Dakota’s political history.

Granted, there was some excitement at the Republican Party’s state convention, and some chaos at the Democratic convention held a week earlier. In their wake, however, the score is settled, and it’s heavily lopsided.

Democrats drew about 200 people in person and online. Attendance at the Republican convention topped 2,000.

Democrats failed to fill their ticket. Republicans have credible candidates and probably clear winners for every open office.

The excitement at the convention involved a right-leaning insurgency that took aim at the party’s elder statesman, U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, who was endorsed for re-election.

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State Rep. Rick Becker, the insurgent leader, lost the party’s endorsement by 187 votes out of more than 2,000 cast, but he did lose. And he said he wouldn’t take his campaign to the primary election.

That doesn’t prevent a contest in June’s primary election. Getting on the ballot requires only 300 petition signatures. But there’s no clear candidate to replace Becker. No one else has the name recognition nor, frankly, the creativity to make a credible challenge to Hoeven, nor, possibly the ego to want to try. Hoeven’s been in the Senate for 12 years and he was governor for 10 years before he went to Washington. In his last two elections, he’s won more than three quarters of the vote.

Hoeven took no chances at the convention. He secured an endorsement from Donald Trump just ahead of the convention. What’s more, Trump made a video that was played at the convention. It was filled with bombastic praise of Hoeven.

That’s all a little surprising, because Hoeven hasn’t been outspoken one way or another about Trump. Instead, he’s been close to Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the U.S. Senate. These would normally not be credentials enough to persuade the insurgents in North Dakota, but perhaps enough were lulled by the president’s words and decided to stick with Hoeven.

Both Trump and U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, Hoeven’s colleague in the North Dakota delegation, praised Hoeven’s work behind the scenes.

None of the other candidates faced a challenge at the convention. Rep. Kelly Armstrong was endorsed for the U.S. House. Drew Wrigley, who was appointed attorney general after Wayne Stenehjem’s death, was endorsed for the job. Elected incumbents were endorsed for two jobs, Doug Goehring for Agriculture Commission and Julie Fedorchak for a seat on the Public Service Commission, and appointees Brian Kroshus for Tax Commission and Sheri Haugen-Hoffart for Public Service Commission. The only newcomer on the list is Michael Howe, a state legislator from Casselton, who was endorsed for secretary of state.

So it’s Dullsville up and down the ballot – made duller still because petitioners failed to put two controversial constitutional amendments on the ballot. This could be one of very few election years that did not have issues to settle through initiative or referendum.

This is a far cry from the historical tumult of North Dakota politics historically. Each of the 12 decades of the state’s history has had political battles. Here’s a rundown if you weren’t paying attention these past 123 years.

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The 1890s, the first full decade of statehood, brought epic struggles between populists and regular Republicans, much of it aimed at the political machine headed by Alexander McKenzie, sometimes referred to as “Czar of North Dakota.”

The fight to unseat McKenzie dominated the first half decade of the 1900s. Progressives triumphed in 1906, when John Burke, a Democrat, was elected governor. He served six years and made significant changes in state government.

The Teens brought the emergence of the Nonpartisan League. The Twenties saw a reaction against the League. The 1930s brought its resurrection as Gov. William Langer’s political machine. The 1940s saw a sharp lurch to the right. The 1950s brought the resurrection of the NPL as activists – called “insurgents” then as now – took the League into the Democratic Party. This coalition elected Bill Guy governor in 1960, and he dominated the decade, despite repeated referendum campaigns launched by Robert McCarney, the so-called “Referral King.”

Art Link succeeded Guy as governor in 1972. He served two terms, giving Democrats an unprecedented 20-year hold on the governor’s office. Link lost to Republican Allen Olson in 1980, but Democrats were back in 1984 with George “Bud” Sinner in the governor’s chair. A fractious primary election contest in 1992 wrecked Democratic hopes of another extended run in the governorship, but they held onto legislative majorities into the 1990s.

Ed Schafer won the governorship in 1992. He effectively rebuilt the Republican Party. There were epic contests between the parties through 2012, the last time Democrats won any statewide office.

Republicans didn’t disappoint as far as election interest was concerned, however. They had primary contests for the U.S. House in 2012, when Cramer was elected to that body, and in 2016, when Doug Burgum defeated Wayne Stenehjem for the gubernatorial endorsement. Rick Becker was a candidate at that year’s Republican convention.

Although Becker said he wouldn’t contest this year’s primary, he didn’t entirely abandon his ambition. “I never say never,” he said. So stay tuned.

Then there are the Democrats. Their U.S. Senate candidate, Katrina Christiansen, said last week that Hoeven “will hear my footsteps.” Hoeven might not be listening. He’s got a campaign fund of $3 million to spend.

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So if the election is dull, it won’t be quiet.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.

Related Topics: MIKE JACOBS
Opinion by Mike Jacobs
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