North Dakota politics can be very interesting. In some respects, I think we’re seeing a shift of sorts on our political landscape when it comes to the two-party system in the state. If true, does this shift mean we’ll see the rise of Independents when it comes to those seeking office?
Let’s begin by considering the 2016 Presidential primary season. On the one hand, we had North Dakota Democrats who were big on Bernie Sanders. On the other, North Dakota Republicans were big on Ted Cruz. When it comes to major party politics, the two candidates were and are political opposites. Sanders is an outright big-government socialist and Cruz a limited government constitutionalist.
As we know, Bernie gave way to Hillary and Ted to The Donald for the November 2016 showdown that resulted in a stunning victory for Trumpsters and the now President of the United States, Donald Trump. In fact, for North Dakotans, the race wasn’t even close. Trump trounced Clinton with 65% of the vote.
Let’s now consider the North Dakota State Legislature. During the 65th Legislative Assembly, there were 141 total legislators— 47 Senators and 94 Representatives. Of these 141 legislators, there were just 22 Democrats and a whopping 119 Republicans. In fact, Republicans have dominated both chambers and the governor’s office since 1995.
When it comes to statewide offices, the numbers are even more lopsided. Every single one of them is filled by a Republican.
With these kinds of numbers, it’s not difficult to understand why North Dakota is easily considered a red state. But do those numbers tell the entire story? I don’t believe so.
Let’s consider our representation in Washington, DC. Former Governor and now U.S. Senator John Hoeven is a Republican, but he doesn’t score well when it comes to conservative principles. The same is true of fellow Republican Congressman Kevin Cramer in the U.S. House. Then there’s Democratic U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp. She’s deserving of consideration all her own.
As you’re well aware, Heitkamp is currently embroiled in a re-election campaign against Kevin Cramer. While she doesn’t score well at all when it comes to conservative principles, she doesn’t shine on the progressive scorecard either. In fact, she’s gets an F and is just three spots from being rated with the most progressive Republican. I’m sure voting with Trump more than half the time didn’t help her there.
Now, lest someone think I’m somehow carrying water for Senator Heitkamp, nothing could be further from the truth. In spite of the fact that Congressman Cramer doesn’t vote as consistently conservative as I’d like him to, he’s a far better option than Heitkamp. After all, he didn’t cast votes with Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer in supporting the Obama agenda.
While analyzing these things, it’s obvious to me that the three members of Congress we’ve sent to Washington don’t necessarily represent the conservative and progressive bases of their parties. Is it fair to say this is representative of the majority of voters who elected them? I think so. And recent polling, that shows Cramer with a slight 48% to 44% lead in the aforementioned U.S. Senate race, may indicate as much too.
As I said earlier, I don’t believe the lopsided number of Republican representation in the state tells the whole story. The North Dakota State Legislature is a perfect example of this. The American Conservative Union’s 2017 Ratings of North Dakota helps to illustrate the point. Senate Republicans scored just 57%. House Republicans came in at 65%.
If we look at the ACU’s 2015 Ratings of North Dakota, you’ll notice that the overall average for both chambers of the Legislature are comparable to 2017. But a closer look shows that overall Republicans have become less conservative since 2015 and Democrats have become more conservative— as slight as it may be. This fact is also proven out by the those who scored 80% or better and others who scored less than 10%. In 2015 there were 25 Republicans scoring 80% or better. In 2017 there were just 12. In 2015 there were 8 Democrats scoring less than 10%. In 2017 there were just 2.
I should also point out that the 2017 Legislative Session was the first for 5 of the 12 Republicans scoring 80% or better in the 2017 ACU ratings. Without them, the rankings would have been even less conservative.
Is it any wonder there’s a perception of too many RINO’s in the Republican dominated Legislature?
Or what about the internal battle within the Republican party between the so-called Establishment and the grassroots-limited-government wing of the party? I’ve written about that before when I pointed out that far too often it’s the wrong Republicans being criticized within the party. And that’s not even mentioning the Young Republicans whose organization alone caused a touch of turmoil within the party.
I know some may disagree with me, but I believe all of this just might indicate that North Dakota is largely represented by political moderates. So, what does this mean for the future of the state’s two major parties as their party activists pull towards the left and right? One need look no further than the big government Party Platform & Resolutions of the Democratic-NPL and the limited government Republican Platform of the NDGOP to see an example of this pull that’s taking place. (As a side note, it’s really too bad the NDGOP hasn’t updated their website with this year’s platform and resolutions from April’s State Convention. It’s an even better representation than the platform listed from 2016.)
Here’s what I believe this could mean going forward…
First of all, I don’t see Democrats making huge gains as a party any time in the near future. Though I believe we’re largely represented by political moderates in this state, I also think it’s fair to say that the majority of them lean conservative on many issues rather than progressive. This is proven out by the fact that there’s just 22 Democrats in the State Legislature.
Yet, there’s a major push within North Dakota’s Republican party to bring it back to its conservative roots. Much of this push comes from what is known as the “Liberty Movement” within the party. And believe me, this push has ruffled more than a few feathers within the NDGOP. Recent squabbles about Jared Hendrix – who also happens to be Kevin Cramer’s Deputy Campaign Manager – “meddl[ing] in legislative primaries in Bismarck, Williston and Minot” are a great example of this.
While some would have us to believe they simply have a problem with Hendrix “dabbling in local Republican politics” during a U.S. Senate race, I think it’s much bigger than that. If we look at the candidates he has been working for, they all have one thing in common— they’re very conservative. In the past, Hendrix has also assisted on campaigns for Rick Becker, Luke Simons, Dan Johnston, Sebastian Ertelt, and others— all of whom are examples of the epitome of conservatism in the North Dakota Legislature. So, it seems he may have just rubbed some not-so-conservative Republicans the wrong way.
With this conservative push taking place, I think we’re likely to see more primary challenges within the Republican party. Case in point, Duane Sand just lost his bid in challenging long-time incumbents and Republican-endorsed candidates Larry Klemin and George Keiser in District 47. But in District 3, newcomers Jeff Hoverson and Bob Paulson edged out long-time incumbent Andrew Maragos.
Hoverson and Paulson were both the endorsed candidates for District 3, but Maragos had pushed on to the primary after losing in the District Convention. Why was Maragos challenged in the first place? As one Minot resident put it, some people were “tired of liberals running as Republicans“. And here’s where it gets interesting. Despite his loss for the endorsement, and subsequent loss in the primary, rumors now have it that Margos will run as an Independent in November against the most conservative member of the State Senate, Oley Larsen.
Looking at the numbers from Senator Larsen’s two previous campaigns, I think it’s doubtful that Maragos can beat him. There’s probably a greater chance of him helping Democrat Joseph Nesdahl eek out a victory. Which probably wouldn’t hurt Maragos’ feelings too much. He had an ACU score of 43% himself— not exactly the model of conservatism. And it seems he’s pretty bitter about being ousted from his House seat. Plus it’s no secret that Larsen was instrumental in helping Hoverson and Paulson secure their primary victories. So, it may just turn out to be an Independent campaign with a thread of revenge.
Time will tell whether Maragos will collect the necessary signatures and throw his hat in the ring versus Oley Larsen. But the fact that he’s even considering it isn’t surprising to me.
Even current Secretary of State Al Jaeger was rumored to be considering an Independent run after he lost the Republican party endorsement, at the NDGOP’s State Convention in April, to Will Gardner. But ultimately he decided to honor the results of the convention. Of course, that was before Gardner dropped out due to a problematic past, resulting in Jaeger receiving the party’s Letter of Support last week as an Independent candidate, because deadlines prohibited him from running as a Republican.
A battle of political ideologies is heating up in this state, and I think we may see more Independent candidates as a result of it— especially from defecting Republicans who no longer want to tolerate the growing conservative movement within the party. If this proves to be true, it will certainly be a shift from the typical two party structure that we’ve grown so accustomed to.