Mike Jacobs: Primary results could reshape political landscape

Tuesday’s results will be a measure of grievance and a test of political organization

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs
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The curse of the deadline makes it impossible to comment about what happened in the primary election, held Tuesday, June 14. This columnist writes against a Monday morning deadline. That means the votes have neither been cast nor counted.

The campaign has been remarkable, however, for how local it has been. There were races for statewide offices, including the ballot topper, the U.S. Senate. Both party endorsees had competition. Some down-ballot offices also attracted competition, including secretary of state, which is essentially a clerking job.

Even more remarkable were heated contests between incumbent legislators and challengers, notably directed at the long-serving chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

And more remarkable still, school board elections attracted unprecedented numbers of candidates and exceptional expenditures for campaign advertising.

So this election had the potential to upend the status quo not just in statewide offices but in local governance, as well.


All of this is reminiscent of the primary election of 1916, which brought the Nonpartisan League to power. This followed a statewide organizational effort that resulted in larger-than-usual voter turnout.

A common thread in the two campaigns is a sense of grievance. The League took aim at “Big Biz” and condemned the domination of state politics by out-of-state interests, especially the grain trade and regional financial institutions, both based in the Twin Cities. The League entered its candidates in the Republican primary, and its victory stunned the establishment.

The grievance in this year’s campaign is more explicit and more local. It aimed at entrenched decision makers and is focused on local races.

The election schedule abetted this. North Dakota elects local officials, school boards and city councils, in the primary. County and statewide offices are filled in the general election in November.

The consequence is that the primary should give an indication of how deep the grievances are and how well organized the objectors are, thus defining the political landscape for the foreseeable future.

That’s what happened in 1916. The League didn’t win outright. Its statewide candidates were elected, including the governor. But League dominance didn’t extend to the state Senate, so it took another election cycle for the League to establish its dominance and to enact its program of state-owned businesses, a bank and a mill and elevator, both of them still in business today.

League dominance didn’t last long. In 1921, the governor, attorney general and agriculture commission were recalled – the first successful recall of a governor in U.S. history.

Within a decade, the League came back. “Wild Bill” Langer – initially the League’s attorney general, then an outspoken critic, reinvented the League, making it a vehicle for his personal political power. He served as governor and U.S. senator, effectively dominating the state’s politics for a stretch of nearly half a century.


While the sense of grievance is common to both situations, the political point of view is markedly different. The League was a protest group and the solution it put forward was government intervention in the economy, a strategy that has served North Dakota well, although it took decades for the bank and the mill and elevator to achieve success.

This decade’s grievance is broader. Rather than taking aim at “Big Biz,” it attacks the notion of government itself, emphasizing individual rights and stressing parental involvement in education. This explains the interest in school board races.

School board members were elected Tuesday. There’s no run-off. The candidates with the most votes take office.

Votes were counted overnight Tuesday, but it will take a day or two or maybe a school board meeting or two, before we know the consequences of this summer election.

The picture will be clearer when results in legislative races are known, but the impact of those elections won’t be felt until the Legislature gets organized after the November general election.

Still, Tuesday’s results will be a measure of grievance and a test of political organization. It’s too early to tell, but the results could reshape politics at both state and local levels.

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

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Opinion by Mike Jacobs
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