Port: NDGOP may move its state convention to after the June primary
Angst over divisions in the party along fault lines created during the Trump era has led some to propose removing the NDGOP's state convention from the process for selecting candidates.
MINOT, N.D. — North Dakota's two major political parties, the Democratic-NPL and the Republican Party , hold their state conventions in the spring of election years. Usually, they occur about a week or so apart from each other around the end of March or the beginning of April, and several weeks ahead of the June primary balloting.
Those are endorsing conventions at which party activists do things like vote on policy resolutions and endorse statewide candidates, though those candidates, by state law, aren't officially the nominees until after the June vote.
For the Republicans, that practice might change this cycle.
The NDGOP may well choose to move its 2022 state convention to some date after the June primary vote.
I wrote in August of some hot talk in political circles about whether the party needed to hold a state convention at all. Those conversations have now evolved to a change in the convention's timing, and they're so advanced that potential Republican candidates for statewide office in 2022 are being polled about the move.
"It would have to be voted on by the state committee," Shane Goettle , a national committeeman for the NDGOP, told me of the process. He said there's been discussion about moving the convention, but any formal proposal to do so would, in accordance with party by-laws, have to be noticed 15 days before the next state committee meeting which is scheduled for mid-November.
Goettle said he isn't certain if the proposal will come up or not.
"I would be sad to see it move," he told me. "I'd be surprised. It's a pretty long-standing tradition."
Last cycle the NDGOP didn't hold an endorsing convention because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That created some consternation among a faction of the NDGOP that went ahead and held an ad-hoc convention in Bismarck anyway that came and went with little fanfare or impact on state politics.
Goettle said some believe that, because the party didn't hold an endorsing convention last cycle, "maybe that should be the norm."
Why would Republicans consider this change?
One argument is that the state conventions have become a platform for a small but boisterous faction of the party to promote their agendas. Campaigning for the statewide ballot takes a lot of time and money. Making a splash at a state convention is easier.
Charles Tuttle , a prolific purveyor of Facebook pablum and darling of the Bastiat Caucus faction, was able to address the 2018 state convention as a candidate for the U.S. House, delivering an embarrassing and largely incoherent jeremiad to the delegates. Tuttle didn't win the endorsement and didn't care, opting later in that election cycle to run as an independent in the general election.
Republicans have an interest in protecting their process from trolls like that.
The debates over resolutions, too, are often dominated by fringe characters who land the party in hot water.
Last year NDGOP director Corby Kemmer had to issue an apology after some ugly language about the LGBT community in the party's resolutions made regional headlines. Several prominent Republicans -- including Gov. Doug Burgum, Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer, as well as Rep. Kelly Armstrong -- disavowed the language.
Shifting the timing of the state convention wouldn't necessarily address the resolutions issue, but it would diminish the utility of the convention as a platform for fringe cranks.
Besides, based on ballot box outcomes, the convention process often seems out of touch with North Dakota's voters. In 2012, Cramer won election to the U.S. House after beating Brian Kalk , who enjoyed the NDGOP's convention endorsement, in the June primary vote. Cramer didn't even bother to attend the convention that year.
In 2016, Burgum , then a gubernatorial candidate with no previous experience in office, came in third place at the state convention, earning just 10 percent of the delegate vote on the final ballot , but cruised to an easy victory over Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem in the statewide vote in June.
For many NDGOP leaders, it seems the convention has become a vehicle for kookery that often doesn't produce results, in terms of policy positions or endorsed candidates, that are palatable to the larger body of North Dakota Republicans.
But John Trandem , a Fargo-based Republican who has held various leadership roles with the NDGOP, including his current position as chair of the party's rules committee, says the solutions to these problems lay in engaging in the convention process, not abandoning it.
He argues that the diminishment of the state convention could lead to a diminishment in Republican activism. "We've stopped party building," he told me when I spoke to him about this proposal.
He noted that in 2000, when Hoeven was running for his first term as governor, the NDGOP had approximately 2,000 delegates at their state convention. In 2018, despite significant growth in the state's population and what was, at the time, the hottest U.S. Senate race in the nation between Cramer and then-incumbent Democrat Heidi Heitkamp , the party only managed about 1,400 delegates.
"We're losing the activist base," Trandem says. He also argues that those proposing the change are looking for a "post-partisan North Dakota" where candidates can run as Republicans without any fealty to the party's platform of principles.
Trandem would like to see any issues with kookery addressed by non-kooks engaging in the process, not marginalizing it.
It's not an easy argument to dismiss. This spring the NDGOP saw an effort, organized by activists aligned with the Bastiat Caucus, to take over leadership of some of its local district committees. That spooked a lot of the state's conservatives, including this one, who are concerned about the rise of destructive, authoritarian Trumpist populism.
Those take-over efforts were largely unsuccessful -- the activists lost ground, overall -- but where they were successful, was the problem the process? Or that mainstream Republicans didn't show up in sufficient numbers to hold them off?
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org .