Mike Jacobs: Primary shakes up North Dakota politics

What’s not clear is what faction will dominate, what coalitions might form, who will emerge as leadership candidates and who will win.

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs
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Last week’s primary election, held Tuesday, June 14, didn’t upend North Dakota politics completely, but …

The election did produce significant changes.

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This wasn’t apparent in the top-of-the-ticket races. U.S. Sen. John Hoeven won 77% of the vote after pretty rough treatment at the state Republican Party convention earlier this year. The party’s endorsed candidate for secretary of state, Michael Howe, got two thirds of the votes.

Democrats had a contest for the Senate nomination; the endorsed candidate won – not that it matters, given Republican dominance of the state’s politics.

Right-wing activists had targeted endorsed candidates for both offices, U.S. senator and secretary of state, but they fell far short of victory in either.


Not so in legislative contests, however.

Candidates of the far right appear to have won 15 of 20 contested races for the state House of Representatives and five of 10 contested Senate races. It’s hard to know for sure, given the local nature of these contests.

Coupled with retirements and resignations, this changes the complexion of the Legislature significantly. Republican leaders in both the House and the Senate did not seek reelection. Nor will chairs of the appropriations committees be back. These are arguably the most powerful positions in state government.

The Senate Appropriations Committee chair, Ray Holmberg, resigned effective June 1, and Jeff Delzer, the House Appropriations Committee chair, was defeated in last week’s primary.

Delzer had been targeted by Gov. Doug Burgum, who poured money into a campaign against him and several other legislators. Delzer’s defeat looks like a big win for Burgum, but it may be superficial. Candidates well to the right won other races.

Notable among these was Jeff Magrum, who defeated Burgum’s candidate for a state Senate seat. Magrum celebrated by burning a copy of Burgum’s campaign broadside supporting another candidate.

Both Magrum and his opponent were sitting legislators; reapportionment put them in the same district.

Magrum’s bit of political theater suggests a widening divide between Burgum and legislators, many of whom resent the governor’s interference in legislative elections.


Burgum and other elected state officials may face a hostile legislative environment as the dominant Republican Party continues to fracture. The primary appears to have produced three blocs, which might be labeled Regulars, Wreckers and Puritans.

The Regulars are what once were called “Main Street Republicans.” They see the government's most important role as building the economy. They largely avoid contentious social issues. The Wreckers oppose government in almost all of its forms. The Puritans see government as a way to enforce moral and religious orthodoxy.

These blocs are amorphous, with individual legislators moving from one to another as issues arise. Still, the influence of each is apparent in the primary election results.

At least two incumbent senators, both Regulars, Jessica Unruh Bell of Hazen and David Oehlke of Devils Lake, were targeted by the moralists, and both lost.

Regulars won important races, notably in Bismarck, where Sean Cleary won nomination against a Wrecker. Likewise, Sen. Robert Erbele of Lehr retained his seat against challenger Sebastian Ertelt, who had been a member of the House – and one of the most outspoken of the Puritans therein.

That race was significant for another reason: Democrats campaigned for Erbele. They didn’t have their own candidate.

Statewide, Democrats forfeited more than half of legislative seats. There were write-ins in most of these districts, but in effect, Democrats simply left the field. Democratic candidates drew more votes than Republicans in a handful of districts, mostly in Fargo.

Wreckers won in a number of districts – enough to give them a larger presence in both houses. This will be especially apparent in the Senate, which hasn’t had the organized right-leaning faction that developed in the House, the so-called “Bastiat Caucus.”


The founder of the caucus, Rep. Rich Becker of Bismarck, won’t be back either. He chose to retire. Becker had been the intellectual leader of the caucus and its most prominent public face.

Given the lack of competition in the general election, Republicans will have huge majorities in both houses. What’s not clear is what faction will dominate, what coalitions might form, who will emerge as leadership candidates and who will win.

In addition to the four legislative factions – Democrats, Republican Regulars, Wreckers and Puritans – the executive officials will be another, and potentially fractious, element.

The primary didn’t provide clarity in the state’s politics. Rather, it shook things up and we’ll have to wait to learn which element rises to the top.

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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