OK, against my better judgment, again, I’m going to weigh in on the 2018 election, just more than a week hence. Here goes.
I told Democratic-NPL Congressional candidate Mac Schneider on Thursday that if Heidi Heitkamp wins re-election to the U.S. Senate on Nov. 6, he can expect to head to Washington, D.C., with her, as our next U.S. congressman.
I think that might just happen. History and instinct tell me that Heitkamp will eke out a win over Kevin Cramer. And if she does, her coattails could carry the day for Schneider. North Dakota’s congressional delegation could switch from what most of my Republican friends think will be all-Republican to two-thirds Democrat.
My Republican friends are right to think they will sweep. All the public polls show Cramer with a double-digit lead. And Heidi’s vote against Judge Brett Kavanaugh and a big gaffe in a print newspaper ad a couple of weeks ago have swelled their confidence.
But Heitkamp, and North Dakotans, have a way of confounding pollsters, and a lot of North Dakota voters don’t decide who to vote for in heavily contested races until they point their pencil at the ballot on Election Day.
I’ve been among Heidi’s staunchest supporters of her Kavanaugh vote and one of her harshest critics of her newspaper ad, but I understand why she did both of them. She’s very sensitive to women’s issues, and very protective — often to the point of anger — of a woman’s right to be free from sexual harassment, assault and discrimination. And rightfully so.
I remember an incident in her first statewide election campaign, for North Dakota state auditor in 1984, when North Dakota Republican media consultant Darrell Williams called her a cunt. I recall her hurt, and her anger, over that incident, and she said that no women should have to be subject to that kind of treatment, and I don’t think she ever forgot it. I think it drove her even harder to fight back and to lead efforts to improve the lot of women.
She became the first North Dakota woman elected tax commissioner, and then attorney general, and the first to be nominated by a major party for governor of North Dakota.
Her loss in that race in 2000 was because she was a woman. Not because North Dakotans voted against a woman, but because a lot of little old ladies who would have loved to vote for someone named Heidi thought she should stay home and doctor for her breast cancer and spend time with her young children in case the cancer ended up killing her, which it often did in those days.
That breast cancer and that loss drove her into political retirement until her old mentor, Kent Conrad, convinced her to succeed him in the U.S. Senate when he retired in 2012.
Her re-election effort this year boils down to whether North Dakotans want to hire her to work for them for another six years. And history is on her side.
In the past 75 years, only two sitting U.S. senators have been defeated for re-election in North Dakota. Democrat John Moses defeated Republican Gerald P. Nye in 1944, and Democrat Kent Conrad defeated Republican Mark Andrews in 1986.
As we witnessed in 2000, when North Dakotans told Heidi, out of sympathy, to stay home instead of moving to the governor’s residence, North Dakotans are nice people. We don’t just go around throwing people out of their jobs. We don’t just fire people because someone else might do a better job. To get fired, you have to give them a reason to fire you, and Heidi hasn’t given North Dakotans a reason to fire her. The election is not about her opponent, Kevin Cramer. It is strictly a referendum on Heidi.
I told a few friends earlier this week, only half joking, that one of the REAL reasons I want to see Heidi win is to find out what Kevin Cramer was promised by Harold Hamm and Donald Trump, and whether he gets it. Kevin was reluctant to leave his safe congressional seat because he needs the job and the money. He’s been a public servant his entire career and is one of the least wealthy members of Congress. It took a big promise to get Kevin to take this gamble. Don’t bet against a Cabinet position or a seat on the Continental Resources board of directors.
Meanwhile, in case you hadn’t noticed, there’s also a race for an open seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from North Dakota this year, the seat Cramer has abandoned. The two candidates are Schneider, who I mentioned earlier, and, ummm, oh, yeah, Kelly Armstrong. The race has drawn little interest, including, seemingly, from the candidates themselves. That’s good strategy for Schneider — he needs to keep his nose clean and rely on Heidi’s coattails. Not so good for Armstrong, who seems think the seat is his, just because he’s a Republican, and Republicans always win in North Dakota.
Considering the two giant vacuums sucking all the campaign money into the U.S. Senate race, the two have done a respectable job raising money and running their campaigns, but no one is paying attention because control of the U.S. Senate likely rests on the outcome of the other race here, for the Senate. It’s the quietest race for the House since 2012, the year Cramer beat Pam Gulleson in his first congressional race. Like this year, the attention that year was focused on the U.S. Senate race, where a woman named Heidi Heitkamp was trying to be the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate from North Dakota, and was attracting all the attention.
A win by Schneider, on Heidi’s coattails, or even a close loss, could signal the beginning of a new cycle in North Dakota politics. For years, I’ve been decrying the talk that ”North Dakota is a Republican state,” in spite of the Republican stranglehold on state government the last couple of decades. I’ve always believed politics is cyclical in North Dakota, and the cycles depend on leadership.
In the 32 years from 1960 to 1992, Democrats controlled the governor’s office for 28 of those years, and more often than not held a majority of statewide offices and were competitive in the Legislature. That was due to strong leaders like Bill Guy, Art Link, George Sinner, Quentin Burdick, Byron Dorgan, Kent Conrad and Earl Pomeroy, and a strong party organization led by people like George Gaukler and David Strauss.
Ed Schafer put a chink in the armor in 1992 when he was elected governor (with the help of party leader Kevin Cramer, incidentally) and began rebuilding the Republican Party, and Republicans have pretty much run things here since the departure of every one of those Democrat names from the state’s political scene. The Democrats’ lack of leadership, more than anything, has been the cause of the Republicans success. You certainly can’t point to any dynamism in names like John Hoeven, Jack Dalrymple, Kevin Cramer, Al Carlson or Wayne Stenehjem, titular party leaders the past 15 years. Only Schafer and current Gov. Doug Burgum have generated any enthusiasm among the state’s voters. And I think Burgum’s star is fading fast. Don’t bet on him being around very much longer.
Don’t be surprised if one (Josh Boschee?) or two Democrats finally win statewide offices this year, and don’t be surprised if there’s a Democrat in the new governor’s residence in 2021. I’m certainly waiting to see who the new party leaders will be, but I think they’re out there. It’s going to be a fast, steep climb, but I think it’s time for a new cycle.
I’ve been wrong before. In late 2015, I wrote “Start practicing now, so you are ready, in 2017, to say “Gov. Stenehjem” and “President Clinton,” although I also wrote “the wild card is Fargo’s Doug Burgum … he’s a restless soul, and he’s hinted he might be interested.” You can read that old blog here to check up on my creds as a political prognosticator (and read about the beginning of the end of Drew Wrigley’s political career).
A lot can happen in the last 10 days of a campaign — just ask Al Olson or Hillary Clinton — so I’ll reserve the right to change my mind the night before the election. I’ve got four beers bet with Bob Martinson this year. (We’ve tamed down our election bets since the days when we bet a beer on every Legislative race.)
If young people turn out to vote, we could legalize marijuana in North Dakota (Measure 3 on the ballot), which would really give legislators fits as they try to figure out how to regulate it (I’m with my friend Mike Jacobs; I’ll reserve a plot in my garden for it — bye-bye broccoli) and those are the voters who could put Heidi over the top. But they could have just as big a problem with voting as Native Americans, with North Dakota’s new voter ID law requiring them to have an ID with an address in their college precinct. A lot of them could get turned away on Election Day because their driver’s license says they live in Hannaford or Hankinson.
If Measure one passes, we’ve voted to give ourselves an Ethics Commission — I hope we do, but it’s pretty hard for those “Badass Grandmas” sponsoring it to fight Big Oil, the REC’s, the ACLU, the Chamber of Commerce and the Catholic Church, who’ve teamed up in what I see as an unholy alliance. My only real problem with Measure 1 is that they left out what I would have considered the most important element in cleaning up North Dakota politics, which have changed substantially since the Oil Boom — campaign contribution limits. There are some big checks being written to North Dakota political candidates, and those checks come with strings. But if this one passes, we’ll go after that next time.
So that’s my 42 cents worth for 2018. I’ve been surprised by election outcomes before and won’t be surprised if I get surprised again. The day after the 2016 North Dakota Primary Election, for example, the headline on my blog was “What The Hell Just Happened?” I might be writing that again. The morning after the 2016 General Election I wrote “We got all dressed up to go to the ball, and we ended up at a rodeo.” That was an understatement if I ever wrote one. All of which makes politics my favorite spectator sport in America. Let’s talk Nov. 7.
Oh, one last note: Heres what I wrote after Heidi’s win in 2012. there might be some lessons to be learned here.