Milton Who? Norman Who?

The last time North Dakota had two Republican U.S. Senators was 51 years ago this month. August 1960. Milton R. Young and Norman Brunsdale. Young had been in office since 1945, when he was appointed to fill out the term of Democrat John Moses, who died in office that year after serving only two months as our Senator. Brunsdale was appointed in November of 1959, to replace longtime Senator William Langer, who also died in office. A special election was called in June of 1960 for that Senate seat, and Brunsdale was defeated by Democratic-NPL Congressman Quentin Burdick. Burdick took office August 8, 1960, and since then, there has been at least one Democrat representing North Dakota in the U.S. Senate, and for almost half of the fifty years between Burdick’s election and Dorgan’s retirement at the end of 2010, both our Senators were Democrats. (And that just drove North Dakota Republicans batty!)

Well, that shit is about to come to an end. Likely, when the Senate convenes in January of 2013, North Dakota will finally have two Republicans in the U.S. Senate again. Because Rick Berg is probably—no, likely–going to be the next United States Senator from North Dakota.

Burdick, elected in that special election in the summer of 1960, served until he died in office in 1992. Mark Andrews succeeded Young in 1981, served one term and was defeated by Kent Conrad in 1986. Conrad has been in the Senate since. And since then, North Dakota has had all Democrats in the Senate until John Hoeven was elected to succeed Byron Dorgan last year.

That will all change next year, when Berg joins Hoeven after the 2012 election. Sorry, Democrats. Get over it. Now. Focus on something else, because in spite of some really bad votes in his first term in the U.S. Congress, Berg is going to have all the money he needs to move to the Senate. Enough money to get elected. That’s one of the rules that hasn’t changed in Washington.

North Dakota is finally going to finally fully live up to its reputation as a Republican state. The rest of the country is going to say “Geez, what took you so long?”.

Berg’s election next year will be a mixed blessing. I can’t say I am either excited or disappointed about it, but his legislating will probably improve as a Senator. He’s been caught up in the whole Tea Party thing this year and has come off as something of an ideologue, voting with his party’s majority to cut for the sake of cutting, including funds for some things that are pretty important to North Dakotans. He’ll mellow over there in the Senate, especially under the watchful eye of moderate John Hoeven. He’ll be a much better Senator for North Dakota than he has been a Representative. So we’re better off having him in the Senate.

But, take heart, Democrats. As we all know, in politics, when one door closes, another door opens. Or sometimes even two. If North Dakota Dem-NPL’ers are smart—and they are—they’ll focus on the two races they can win in 2012: U.S. Congress and Governor. Because Berg and Hoeven, the state’s two best Republican politicians, will be in the Senate. And the Republican bench, frankly , is not that strong. I mean, when Al Carlson is among the front runners . . .

There’ll be a bunch of second tier Republicans like Carlson scrambling for the Congressional nomination. And Governor Jack Dalrymple is the least known Governor in recent history. Not the worst governor, just the least known. The only publicity he’s gotten in his brief stay in office is as a flood fighter, and we lost that fight. Hardly anyone knows him, or anything about him, and he’s not charismatic. Nor is he as single-minded as his predecessor. Hoeven was able to stay on message unwaveringly for ten years, and I saw him on TV the other night and he’s still on it. Dalrymple hasn’t yet had the opportunity to focus on a message that works. And his time as Dalrymple the Governor is short before he becomes Dalrymple the Candidate. Not much time to build a record to run on, or to even create an impression that he fits in the office. North Dakotans know where their governor lives, and they expect to see him regularly. In just the short 22 months between taking office and facing the voters, Dalrymple is at a distinct disadvantage going into the 2012 election. Especially if the Democrats zero in on that race. Which is what they should do. Now.

The talk around is that they are courting Heidi Heitkamp to run for Governor. That would be a good thing for them. Even 12 years after her last statewide race, she still has cache’, and the best rolodex around. But Democrats ought not limit their efforts to just Heitkamp. There are other good candidates. Senate Minority Leader Ryan Taylor is sniffing around quietly, but is widely expected by party insiders to throw his big old Stetson hat into the governor’s race. If former State Representative and Dorgan chief of staff Pam Gulleson is realistic about running a statewide race, she should do the same thing, and forget about a race against Berg. She’s a friend of mine, like Tracy Potter, who ran against Hoeven last year, and I hate to see my friends take a shellacking. Which is what is likely to happen to Gulleson if she runs against Berg.

The North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party is not at an historic low when it comes to elected offices held and party strength at the grass roots level, but it is close. Their only elected officials are Conrad, who’s leaving, and School Superintendent Wayne Godfrey Sanstead, who’s 76 and may be ready to retire. That’s the fewest offices they’ve held in modern political history. In 1981, the only Democrats in the State Capitol were Bruce Hagen at the Public Service Commission and Tax Commissioner Kent Conrad, but Dorgan and Burdick were in Washington. Republicans had two-thirds majorities in both houses of the state Legislature that year, as they do now. But the Democrats came back as a party starting in 1982, and ran the Capitol for a dozen years into the ‘90s, thanks to a spirited intra-party race for Governor in  1984. That year, four candidates criss-crossed the state, generating enough publicity and enthusiasm among party faithful to sweep Bud Sinner into the Governor’s office and take over most of the elected offices in the Capitol. And at the next election, in 1986, Conrad knocked off Andrews, giving North Dakota its first-ever all Democratic-NPL Congressional delegation. The party was at an all-time high.

But they began pissing it away in 1992, when Attorney General Nicholas Spaeth ran a lackluster campaign for Governor and was trounced by Republican Ed Schafer. Other than holding on to the three Washington posts, it’s been all downhill for the Democrats since then. What the Democrats have found is that it is hard to build a party when the other side controls the Governor’s office for 20 years. A lively race for the party’s gubernatorial nomination among Heitkamp, Taylor and Gulleson, and perhaps others as well, sends a signal that they believe Dalrymple is vulnerable, and that may be just what’s needed for a rebirth of their party. Especially if the incumbent is indeed vulnerable, and the successful nominee wins in November. And perhaps one of the candidates for Governor will get enough publicity and experience to at least run a creditable race against Berg.

What then of the race for Congress? With Berg moving to the Senate, it’s an open seat. The last two times there’s been an open Congressional seat, with no incumbent in the race, were in 1980, when Dorgan was elected to Congress, and 1992, when Pomeroy won. Democrats have a real shot at it. That, too, could go to one of the losing candidates for the nomination for Governor. Or to an ambitious Legislator, like Mac Schneider, or his cousin Jasper, a former Legislator. Or they could look to a seasoned Legislator and party leader like State Representative Shirley Meyer from Dickinson, a westerner and populist in the Dorgan mold. I like that idea a lot.

Footnote: Speaking of Spaeth, did you catch the story earlier this month that he filed an age discrimination lawsuit against Michigan State University because they did not hire him as a professor? And, Spaeth filed complaints against 100-plus other law schools with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, saying they discriminated against him by refusing to consider him for teaching jobs because of his age. So far, between 30 and 40 of the complaints have been dismissed. Spaeth’s lawyer says that her client expects to sue additional schools, either by filing separate cases or by adding them as defendants to the Michigan State suit.

Uffda. 100 schools discriminated against him. Sense a pattern there? And did he really send a serious application to 100 schools? That must have taken some time.  But you know what really bothers me about that? Spaeth is three years younger than me. But he’s old enough to have filed a serious age discrimination lawsuit. Dang.

4 thoughts on “Milton Who? Norman Who?

  1. Jim – Great analysis. Thank you. The most enthusiasm I’ve seen yet for Dem-NPLers! I agree with most of what you say, but, I’m less optimistic. I believe Dalrymple is in a stronger position than you do. According to my records the Dem-NPL is, contrary to your statement, at an historic low. Comparing the 2012 election to 1984, our friend, Tracy Potter announced for Insurance Commissioner March 8, 1983 and there were several announced candidates for Governor by August 1983. The Dem-NPL needs nine state-wide candidates in 2012 and so far no takers…


  2. Must disagree with Gary that Democrats are at a historic low point. He didn’t go back far enough in his records. Check out the history of Democrats in the first half of the 20th Century — before their merger with the NPL. Prior to the 1938 election of John Moses as governor, there were long periods with zero Democrats holding statewide office or a congressional post.


    1. Kevin — Agree with you. However, I was refering to the Dem-NPL (1960-Present) not the ND Democratic Party (Prior to 1960).


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