JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — The Race For An Open Seat In Congress

North Dakota’s Democrats will hold their state convention in Grand Forks later this week, and the highlight, if there’s to be one, will be choosing a candidate to run for North Dakota’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. So I’ve been thinking a bit about politics and conventions, especially past ones, similar to what we might see this week.

I’m remembering the 1992 North Dakota Democratic-NPL State Convention, which was held at the Bismarck Civic Center. I was helping out with one of the campaigns, so I was at the Civic Center the day before the convention started when word spread like wildfire across the convention floor: Sen. Kent Conrad announced he was not seeking re-election to a second term.

Kent had been elected to the Senate six years earlier in a stunning upset over Mark Andrews. During that campaign, he pledged that he would not stand for re-election if the federal budget deficit had not fallen substantially by the end of his term (a promise that made a lot of us cringe). By 1992, it became obvious that this would not be the case, and although polls showed that the electorate would have welcomed his reneging on that pledge, Conrad considered his promise binding, and said he would not run for re-election.

Kent’s announcement set in motion a chain of events I want to talk about today. But first, let’s go back a little further.

In 1980, Republicans creamed the Democrats. It was the year of the Reagan landslide, and North Dakota was not unlike most states around the country that generally tilt a little Republican. Republicans made big gains in state capitols and legislative chambers. That reduced the ranks of Democrats in both the North Dakota House and Senate — Republicans led 73-27 in the House and 40-10 in the Senate. But there were a couple of surprise winners in the House races — Democrats Earl Pomeroy of Valley City and Bill Heigaard of Langdon.

By the end of the 1983 legislative session (during which I worked for the Democratic-NPL House and Senate caucuses), Minority Leader Dick Backes told me “You watch that Heigaard and Pomeroy — they’re going to be stars.” Backes was right.

In the 1982 election, Heigaard moved over to the Senate, where he eventually became Senate majority leader for four sessions and got his party’s nomination for governor in 1992, only to lose in the primary to Nick Spaeth.

Pomeroy was re-elected in 1982, but in 1984, he ran successfully for North Dakota insurance commissioner, and he was re-elected in 1988.

Which brings us back to 1992. Earlier that year, Pomeroy announced that he was not going to seek re-election. He and his wife were going to join the Peace Corps. They’d be leaving North Dakota at the end of his term, in January 1993. His brother, Glenn, had announced he would seek the job and was about to be endorsed at the state convention.

When the news of Kent’s decision hit the convention floor we all said, “Well, then Byron has to run for the Senate.” Yep.

Byron Dorgan, Kent’s protégé, had been in the U.S. House of Representatives since his election in 1980. He had declined to challenge Andrews in 1986, so Kent ran and was elected. So on that April 1992 morning, Byron wasted no time announcing he would seek Kent’s seat. That left an open seat for the state’s lone congressman’s job.

All eyes turned to Fargo’s John Schneider. Schneider was the Democrats’ floor leader in the North Dakota House of Representatives, widely recognized for his speaking and leadership skills, and was the next star of the Democratic-NPL Party. Earl Pomeroy had announced he was quitting politics, and Heigaard was running for governor, so Schneider was the obvious choice to fill Dorgan’s shoes. He quickly let it be known he was interested in the party’s endorsement for Congress.

But the tug of a U.S. Congress seat was too powerful for Pomeroy to resist. After a long conversation with his wife, Laurie, he sought out Schneider and the two of them talked. And talked. And talked. And then John Schneider blinked. It was an incredibly magnanimous gesture. John likely conceded (not many are privy to those conversations) that Earl, having already won two statewide elections, was probably more electable. John stepped aside.

Earl was elected by a wide margin, and remained in Congress for 18 years, until his defeat by Rick Berg in 2010. John Schneider’s prize was the job of U.S. Attorney for North Dakota in the Clinton years. Sadly, he died young, of a brain tumor in 2001.

All of which brings us to 2018, and the point of all this history I’ve been boring you with. Once again there is an open seat in Congress up for grabs this fall, with Congressman Kevin Cramer’s decision to take on Heidi Heitkamp for a Senate seat.

Late last summer, a young fellow from Fargo named Ben Hanson decided to run for North Dakota’s lone seat in Congress. He’s done an admirable job of raising funds and meeting people, and until last week was the likely nominee of the Democratic-NPL Party. No more. Former State Senator Mac Schneider’s entry into the race last week makes it a likely tossup for the nomination at next week’s state convention. A third candidate, state Sen. John Grabinger, is a nonstarter with those two in the race.

Now, there will be a good number of people, but probably not a majority, at the State Democratic-NPL convention this week, who remember the 1992 convention and John Schneider’s concession to Earl Pomeroy. With those folks, there’ll likely be some sympathy for his nephew, Mac.

And the Schneider family has a long reach. Besides his Uncle John’s prominence, his mother, Mary, is a state representative from Fargo. His dad, Mark, is a former state Democratic-NPL Party chairman. His other uncle, Steve, worked for Pomeroy in the Capitol when Earl was insurance commissioner, and he and his wife, Donna, are longtime party activists. His aunt, Lois, John’s widow, was a longtime employee in Sen. Kent Conrad’s office. Her son, Jasper, Mac’s cousin, is a former state legislator, once a candidate for state tax commissioner, and an Obama administration appointee as North Dakota’s Rural Development director. And Mac’s sister, Libby, last I heard, was managing Heidi Heitkamp’s Senate campaign — unless Heidi turns her loose to run her brother’s campaign if he’s nominated. There won’t be many Democrats at this week’s convention who don’t like the Schneider family and don’t know at least a couple of them.

Mac’s entry into the race at such a late stage, a little more than a week before the party’s nominating convention, is a bit puzzling. Ben Hanson is a solid candidate who’s done everything right so far. He’s built a strong campaign organization, raised a bunch of money — more than $100,000, I think, including, I’d guess (I haven’t seen Ben’s FEC report), a contribution from Mac Schneider, who has said consistently he would not run for anything this year — and has traveled the state tirelessly, all things a Democrat must do in North Dakota to have a chance.

Ben’s talked to pretty much every delegate to next week’s convention and has told me he had pretty much universal support going into the convention. Of course, that was before Schneider and Grabinger got in the race. The test for Hanson now is to hold onto a majority of those delegates in a contested race. Knowing how hard he has campaigned to date, I suspect he’s still on the phone shoring up his support.

So can Schneider’s late entry into the race make any sense? Who, or what, caused him to change his mind? We may find out the answer next week, if Earl Pomeroy gives Mac’s nominating speech. That would make some sense. Earl doesn’t owe the Schneider family anything, but he’s a gracious man, and this would be a good way to thank John Schneider’s widow, Lois, and his brothers (and law partners), Mark and Steve, and the kids and nephews, all of whose lives would have been considerably different back in the 1990s, and beyond, without John’s magnanimity at that 1992 state convention.

In any case, both Hanson and Schneider are good ballot names, and the two who bear them are good candidates. For either, though, it’s a tough race, because they have a near-fatal flaw — they’re Democrats in North Dakota.

And Kelly Armstrong, their likely opponent unless something really weird happens at the subsequent Republican state convention, comes from one of the richest families in western North Dakota. Armstrong’s father, Mike, is an uber-successful oilman, and I’m guessing he’s got at least one more zero in his net worth than the also-rich banker from Grafton, N.D., Tom Campbell, who’ll be duking it out with Armstrong at their convention.

So, attention: Ben Hanson and Mac Schneider: Good luck if you get the nomination. This is going to be an expensive campaign. I’d say you’re going to have to raise a million dollars, at minimum, between now and Election Day, to have a chance because Kelly Armstrong is going to have at least that much, maybe more.  Your campaign starts Sunday. There are 233 days between then and Election Day. That means you have to raise at least $4,000 a day, every day, to compete. Starting Sunday. If you don’t raise any money Sunday, you have to raise $8,000 on Monday. And if you don’t raise $8,000 on Monday … well, you get the drift. So don’t let those folks down who voted for you at the convention. Get busy.

The only real thing operating in Hanson and Schneider’s favor is that it’s an open seat, with no incumbent, and that makes it a bit of a wild card in a year when Democrats nationwide are expected to do well in November. Open seats offer at least a chance to anyone running.

History lesson: Open congressional seats

A note about open congressional seats: They don’t happen very often. Here’s a brief history of North Dakota’s congressional representation in what we call North Dakota’s modern political era, since 1960.

North Dakota had two seats in Congress until 1972. We elected two people to Congress at large. In 1960, the two seats were held by Quentin Burdick, a Democrat, and Don Short, a Republican. But our U.S. Senator, William Langer, had died in office and a special election was held in June of that year to replace him. Burdick won, and resigned his seat in the House. Hjalmer Nygaard, a Republican, was elected to replace him in the general election that November.

But before the 1962 election came along, Congress changed things and divided the state into two congressional districts, East and West. In 1962, Short and Nygard were re-elected, Short from the West and Nygaard from the East.

Then Nygaard died in office, and Mark Andrews was elected to replace him from the East. And in 1964, Short was defeated by Democrat Rolland Redlin. Redlin served one term and was defeated by Tom Kleppe in 1966. Kleppe was re-elected in 1968 and then was appointed to serve as Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Interior and did not seek re-election in 1970, the year Art Link won the seat (an open seat) by beating Robert McCarney.

But by the time the1972 election came around,, everything changed. In the congressional reapportionment year of 1971, North Dakota lost one of its two congressional seats, which would have meant that incumbents Link and Andrews would have had to compete in 1972 for the same seat. Link decided instead to run for governor, and won.

So Andrews, having first been elected to Congress in 1962, held the office until 1980, when he moved over to the Senate, and Dorgan was elected to the open seat. Dorgan held it until 1992, when he ran for Senate, and Pomeroy won the open seat. Pomeroy held it until 2010, when he was defeated by Berg, but Berg abandoned it in 2012 to run for the Senate seat being vacated by Dorgan’s retirement. And Cramer was elected to fill the open seat.

So you can see that seats in Congress from North Dakota don’t come open very often. Our congressmen tend to stay in office until they die or are defeated. Since 1970, almost 50 years now, only in 1980, 1992, and 2012 have there been races for an open seat in Congress. Until this year, when Cramer decided to abandon his seat in Congress to run against Heidi Heitkamp for Senate, creating an open seat in Congress.

And that’s why we have so many candidates running for Congress this year.