JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — North Dakota Republicans Riding High (But Welcome Back, Potter, And So Long, Ricky)

I think I’ve gone to a political convention of some kind in almost every even-numbered year since 1972. That year, 50 years ago now, I came home from the Navy and went to my district Democratic-NPL convention, and someone said, “Hey. We’ve got a Vietnam veteran here today, let’s send him as a delegate to the State Convention.”

That’s a lot of speeches and roll call votes. But I’ve never seen anything like I saw on a couple of Saturdays this spring at the Democratic and Republican State Conventions.

They were polar opposites.

The Democratic convention in Minot attracted a couple of hundred party loyalists, some of them sitting at home watching on their computers, as delegates, and another 50 or so political junkies like me. (I got a media pass so I could wander around the convention floor, although no one was checking.) I saw a bunch of old Democrat friends there and had an enjoyable time visiting. There was plenty of time for that because there was little business to be conducted.

In fact, the convention spent more time in recess over two days than it did in session. By Saturday afternoon, the few reporters assigned to cover the convention were pretty pissed off at how much of their time had been wasted. It’s not a good idea to piss off the media. North Dakota Democrats need all the friends they can get.

The Republican convention was something to behold. More than 2,300 fire-breathing delegates were sardined into the exhibit hall at the Bismarck Civic Center, I’m sure the most participants ever at a state political convention.

What was so strange about it is that about a thousand of them came to Bismarck to throw one of their own, the party’s standard-bearer for the past 22 years, out of office.

John Hoeven survived the challenge to his incumbency by just 187 votes out of 2,261 cast. More than a thousand faithful Republicans voted to end Hoeven’s time in the U.S. Senate. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.

The challenge was led by state Rep.Rick Becker, who has become, in my mind, nothing more than a gadfly. A loser. I hope we’ve now seen the last of him in North Dakota politics. If I were one of those thousand loyal party faithful who followed Becker over the cliff, I’d be pretty pissed at him right now.

I bumped into Sen. Hoeven at the grocery store the other day, and we stopped for a brief visit. I said, “Those thousand people might be a little nervous right now, because you know who they are, Senator.” He just smiled.

It’s not all that hard to stack a convention. Anybody with some organizational skills can round up a couple of key people in each legislative district, and they can each round up a few more, and pretty soon you’ve got a good-sized delegation going to a state convention. What’s risky is when you do that but don’t quite get the job done. That’s what happened to Becker.

The last time I saw it done successfully was way back in 1992, at the Democratic-NPL Convention, when Senate Majority Leader Bill Heigaard managed to round up enough delegates to waylay Attorney General Nick Spaeth’s ascendancy to the governor’s office. The victory was short-lived that year, though, because Spaeth, having served eight years in the AG’s office and keeping a pretty high profile, took Heigaard out at the June primary. To no avail. He was soundly defeated by Ed Schafer in the general election in November, an election that started the dominance of the Republican Party in North Dakota.

Democrats almost mounted a comeback in 2000 by running Attorney General Heitkamp for governor, but that’s when Hoeven stepped in, in his first-ever election, and beat her, sealing the deal for the GOP for the next 20-plus years.

I‘m not sure what would have happened in this year’s Senate race if Becker had won. Becker’s convention fight was of them most mean-spirited I’ve ever seen against a fellow party member at a convention. Just as a lot of Democratic-NPL Party faithful failed to rally around Spaeth back in 1992 after he defeated the party’s convention choice for governor, I don’t know if Becker could have reunified the Republican Party and mustered the resources to get elected in November after deposing their party’s standard bearer. Probably, because the state generally leans pretty heavily Republican right now, but the Democrats nominated a fireball candidate of their own for senator, Katrina Christiansen of Jamestown. She got the nickname “Hurricane” at the convention, and she’s going to give Hoeven fits. But like everyone else who’s run against him, she’ll be lucky to get 40 percent of the vote.

Becker, meanwhile, just needs to fade away. He’s been involved in politics now for about a dozen years now and has little to show for it. He’s represented a conservative legislative district and hasn’t had any trouble getting elected there, but he’s been one of the most ineffective legislators I’ve ever seen.

He’s introduced about a dozen bills in each of the past few legislative sessions and his fellow Republican legislators have killed almost all of them. The handful that have passed have mostly been so heavily amended they hardly resembled the bills he introduced. In the 2019 session, for example, they killed 10 of the 11 bills he introduced.

He made a half-assed run for governor in 2016, when Jack Dalrymple retired, but didn’t even come close to beating Wayne Stenehjem at the convention. And then Stenehjem lost the primary to Doug Burgum in June.

So long, Ricky. Don’t let the Republican door hit you in the ass on your way out.

As for the election this year, it’s going to be a ho-hum affair. Republicans will win most everything again. Democrats came up a few candidates short on their statewide and legislative tickets. The party turned over endorsements for secretary of state and tax commissioner to its executive committee, and it has until the end of the day today to put forth some names for those offices. It’s not the first time that’s happened. Two years ago, Democrats ended their virtual state convention with four empty offices but managed to find four moat-fillers to plug the holes on the ticket. (I’ve always given Byron Dorgan credit for the term “moat-fillers.” I heard him say one time, “When they storm the castle, some poor bastard has to fill the moat.”)

And I’m hearing reports of empty or only partially filled Legislative slates all around the state this year as well. That’s dangerous. The Democrats hold just seven seats in the North Dakota Senate and 14 in the House. The party is at its lowest ebb in its history and it could go even lower this year. That’s sad. You don’t get good government in one-party states or countries.

Here’s a bright spot, though. I think my friend, Tracy Potter, is going back to the state Senate from my district, District 35 in Bismarck. Tracy served in the 2007 and 2009 sessions after ridding the Capitol of the poisonous rhetoric of Margaret Sitte in the 2006 election and then became the party’s moat-filler in Hoeven’s first run for the U.S. Senate in 2010. With Tracy off the ticket, Sitte bounced back into her Senate seat.

When the 2014 election rolled around, Tracy decided to come back to the state Senate but ran into a buzz saw at his district convention when Erin Oban brought all her friends to the convention and ran away with the nomination. Tracy could have run against her and probably won in the primary but chose not to do that in the interest of party unity.

Erin beat Sitte handily in the fall and became one of the best state senators the Democrats have ever sent to the capitol. In 2018, she beat Republican carpetbagger Gary Emineth in her re-election effort, but she decided to step aside this year and ended up getting one of the best-paying jobs in the state when President Biden appointed her the state’s Rural Development Director.

And so in an ironic twist of fate, Tracy’s back looking to replace Erin. He got his party’s nomination again this spring. What goes around comes around. He’s not a shoo-in this fall, though. His likely opponent after what promises to be a pretty visible and bitter Republican primary election fight is likely to be a young fellow named Sean Cleary, an acolyte of Gov. Doug Burgum. My Republican friends tell me Burgum’s checkbook will once again jump into a legislative race and that the governor will spend what he thinks it takes to elect his former staffer. I think he spent a quarter of a million dollars on legislative elections two years ago, mostly to beat Jeff Delzer. And I think young Cleary is a grandson of longtime Demcoratic-NPL Legislator Audrey Cleary. If so, Audrey’s rolling over in her grave right now at the thought of one of her offspring running as a Republican. There wasn’t even a hint of a single drop of Republican blood in Audrey. She was as tough a Democrat as they come.

But there aren’t likely to be many bright spots for the Democrats this fall. (One other exception: Look for a couple of former Dem-NPL legislators named Linderman and Vig to be back in the Capitol come January. Remember, you heard it here first. I’ll report. Today is filing day for all candidates to get on the primary election ballot. I’ll take a look around and let you know later how the Democrats have done recruiting candidates. I’ll be cheering for them. It’s not easy to be a Democrat in North Dakota these days, but I’m not giving up hope just yet. As Byron Dorgan also used to say, “Politics is cyclical in North Dakota.” 

Leave a Reply