JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — There’s Going To Be An Election; Ho Hum

There’s an election coming. It’s a pretty boring one. In North Dakota, all the Republicans will win, except in Fargo and a few other places in the Red River Valley. And maybe one Democrat in Bismarck. District 35 Sen. Tracy Potter.

I think District 35 is the only district west of U.S. Highway 281 represented by a Democrat except for the Turtle Mountain Reservation District in Rolette County. Tracy held the seat from 2006-2010 after knocking off the incumbent, Margaret Sitte by 50 votes in 2006. But then, on a lark, he bailed out of the Legislature in 2010 to run against John Hoeven for Byron Dorgan’s U.S. Senate seat when Byron retired. (Yeah, I know, not a wise choice. We talked about it and decided sometimes you just have to say WTF? Why not?) Sitte won the Senate seat back that year.

Four years later, in 2014 he tried for a State Senate comeback but the district convention nominated Erin Oban, who in turn knocked off Sitte again, and served two distinguished terms before deciding to retire this year and take a federal job in the Biden administration. She resigned this past winter and the district appointed Tracy to take her place, earning him the title of senator again and giving him the right to campaign by saying “Keep Senator Tracy Potter working for you.”

His opponent this year is young Sean Cleary, grandson of the late Audrey Cleary, who served 10 years in the Legislature in the 1990s. Audrey was as tough a Democrat as you’d find, and I’m not sure she’d be happy about her right-wing grandson’s campaign, which is being partially funded by the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity PAC.

Cleary got a big boost from Gov. Doug Burgum’s Dakota Leadership PAC in June when he took on the party’s endorsed candidate in the primary and defeated Ryan Eckroth handily by sending out vicious flyers about some legal and ethical problems Eckroth was experiencing.

Cleary was one of “Burgum’s boys” early in Burgum’s first term, serving as an aide in the governor’s office. You’ve probably seen them if you’ve been around the Capitol. They’re the ones who wear the short sports coats that don’t cover their cute little tushes.

He called me once, early in the campaign, and said he had just learned about my blog and was wondering if I wanted to ask him any questions. I told him I wasn’t planning to write about him, but if I did, I’d just make something up. Short phone call.

He’s raised the most money of any legislative candidate, close to $80,000, while Potter has raised about half that. But the spending in the closing months of the campaign has been about the same because Cleary spent about half of his wad to defeat Eckroth in the primary. The difference has been the Americans for Prosperity flyers I’ve been getting in the mail. They don’t have to be reported. And Burgum’s money hasn’t showed up in the fall campaign. I’m puzzled about that.

So who’s gonna win? Who’s gonna be District 35’s senator in the 2023 Legislature? Democrats have held the seat for 12 of the past 16 years, in spite of the fact Republicans Bob Martinson and Karen Karls have held the District’s two House seats all that time.

Martinson, who seems to have been there since the late 19th century (he is the state’s senior legislator), has earned his place, taking care of his two major constituencies — state employees and Bismarck State College. He’s a friend and I’ve been voting for him since the 1980s. Karls is just a slug who takes up a seat and votes party line, never introducing a bill of her own because that would be too much work. Martinson doesn’t introduce a lot of bills, either. He just lays in the weeds and amends appropriations bills at the end of the session to fund good projects. I think he’s built about half the buildings at BSC and is the prime mover behind the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University, the first major effort to honor our 26th president.

Martinson will never lose as long as he runs, but Karls faces her stiffest challenge ever this year in Democrat Don Morrison, the retired director of the Dakota Resource Council. He’s pretty well-known, and likeable, but while District 35 voters don’t mind giving the Democrats the Senate seat, they’re probably not likely to give them a House seat. But Morrison’s run a good campaign. He’s raised nearly $25,000 and spent it it wisely, and knocked on thousands of doors, as has Potter. So you never know for sure until the votes are counted.

As for the Potter-Cleary race, I think it is too close to call. Potter won by just 50 votes out of out of nearly 6,000 ballots cast when he won in 2006. Could be that close again.

Around the state, Democrats hold just 14 of the 94 seats in the House, and seven of the 47 seats in the Senate. I don’t expect that to change much this year. I’ll even be a little surprised if they hold all those seats. I think they’ve left blank spots on the ballot in about half the districts.

As for the rest of the ballot . . .

I thought I might be writing about the potential for a big upset this year in the congressional race with fresh-faced Cara Mund taking it to Kelly Armstrong, but she seems to have fizzled. It takes money to get elected to Congress, and she doesn’t have any. She’s made a big deal out of not taking PAC money. Well, Kelly’s taken a lot of it, and he’s going to use it to beat her. Those are just the rules of the game in the 21st century.

I remember one of Sen. Quentin Burdick’s last campaigns, when he took millions of dollars from labor union PACS. He was roundly criticized by Republicans for being a “Tool of Big Labor.” Well, Burdick spent about half the money defending taking it (“the working men and women of America support my campaign because I stand up for them”) and the other half to win the election over the late Rep.Earl Strinden.

In this year’s Senate race, John Hoeven will get about half the votes — the fewest he’s ever gotten — but his two opponents, Ricky Becker and Katrina Christiansen, will split the other half, so Hoeven gets another easy victory. If one of his opponents surges a bit at the end, Hoeven could end up with less than 50 percent of the votes and still get to keep his apartment in Washington, DC.  You only have to win by one vote in North Dakota. And I’m pretty sure the Republicans will sweep all the other statewide races.

But there’s one more election I want to talk about a little bit. It’s a County Commission race out in Billings County, where Medora is located. The big issue out there the past couple of elections has been whether to use the county’s power of eminent domain to take some ranch land from the family of the late Congressman Don Short to build a road through thei Short’s feedlot and a new bridge for oil trucks across the Little Missouri River.

That scheme cost the bridge’s champion, former commission chairman Jim Arthaud, his seat on the commission in 2020. Billings County ranchers didn’t take too kindly to government coming in and taking ranch land from their neighbors against their will. But now Arthaud has an acolyte, a young fellow named Steve Klym, running against longtime Commissioner Mike Kasian. Kasian half-heartedly supports building a bridge but opposes using eminent domain.

Klym has been running great big colored ads in the Billings County Pioneer, and I’ve been a little nervous he might knock off the incumbent. But this week, a big ad appeared in the paper supporting Kasian and really beating up Klym. Take a look. I think it could turn the election in Kasian’s favor. No one seems to know who paid for it.

(UPDATE: This week’s paper just came out, and the mystery is solved. To comply with the law, the paper added the name of the person paying for the ad. It is Sandy Short, wife of the late Con Short, whose family still owns the ranch on which the proposed bridge was to be built.)

That’s an unusual ad for a county commission race — they don’t often go negative, usually just saying vote for this or that good old boy. But there seems to be an element of intrigue in Billings County elections lately, and that’s kind of sad. Neighbors just don’t get along like they used to. There are fewer than 1,000 people living in the whole county. You’d think they’d all know each other. And get along. But oil has changed things.

Finally, one last note of disappointment. Lillian and I live in the Highland Acres area of District 35 in Bismarck. Those of you who read my writings regularly know that I am a champion of that neighborhood. We recently became a National Historic District. We’re proud of that. And all the time we’ve lived here we’ve been able to walk over to Highland Acres Elementary School to vote, as do a good number of folks in our neighborhood.

No more. The county has consolidated voting places — my guess is a lack of election workers. Our school is no longer our polling place. Now we have to get in our car, leave Highland Acres and drive to Grimsrud School to vote. We’re not nearly as likely to see our neighbors there and visit with them on election day. Another sign of the times. I think I’m just going to go to the Civic Center and vote early. Like right now.

I’ll report back after Election Day.

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