Milton Who? Norman Who? Redux.

I’ve been pretty quiet here about the 2012 election. My team is losing, generally, and I don’t have much to add to the debate, except to point out the betrayal of the state and its values by the current Governor. It’s going to end badly for my team Tuesday night, I’m afraid. I’ve been poised to write an obituary for the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party, but I’m going to wait a bit and see how North Dakota Democrats react to another ass-whupping.

I want to return to something I wrote here on August 24, 2011:

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.

Well, we’ll see. Something unexpected (at least by me) happened on the way to an all-Republican delegation, in the form of Heidi Heitkamp. Six months earlier, in February 2011, I had written this:

Somebody, pretty soon, is going to do a poll showing Heidi with really strong numbers. Beating, or at least being really competitive against Dalrymple for Governor and Stenehjem, or maybe even Berg, for Senate. She’s said publicly that if she runs for anything, it will be Governor. But a good showing in a Senate poll will bring the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee to her door with its checkbook wide open. They desperately want to hold Conrad’s seat. In the years since she last ran for Governor, she’s converted a lengthy Rolodex of donors to her Blackberry. And Emily’s List will open its doors the moment she makes an announcement. No matter what she runs for, money won’t be a problem. Finally, Kent Conrad is her best friend. What he advises will be key to her decision. She’s going to be pressed to make a decision soon, probably as soon as the Legislature adjourns, so that Democrats can find candidates for the offices she doesn’t choose, and begin raising funds for that candidate. She’s been accused in the past of being indecisive, of waiting too long. This year, she knows that to win, she needs to move early to start the fundraising process.

As pretty much every national news outlet has reported, on the U.S. Senate race story of the year, Heidi did indeed get some good early poll numbers, entered the race, and changed the game. And she might win. We’ll know either Tuesday night or in December, when the recount is done. I think it’ll be close, but there’s just no way to tell whose ground game was more effective until the votes are counted. Still, I won’t be surprised if my prediction was accurate.

Sadly, for those of us who still vote for Democrats—there are fewer and fewer of us each election—it’s about the only competitive race on the ballot this year. In that August 2011 blog post, I also wrote:

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.

And so I urged the Democrats to put their 2012 focus on the Governor’s race, with this logic:

Governor Jack Dalrymple is the least known Governor in recent history. Not the worst governor, just the least known. (Note: my position has changed in 2012. He is the worst.) 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.

Well, so much for my advice. There’s been less focus on the North Dakota Governor’s race this year than in any election I can ever remember. Heidi chose the Senate race, and Democrats settled for a cowboy from Towner, Senate Minority Leader Ryan Taylor, as their Governor candidate. If he can muster more than 40 per cent against Dalrymple Tuesday, Senator Taylor might still be the party’s future. He’s got enough Art Link in him to be a good leader. He just has to get tough enough to get elected. Today’s generation forgets that Art Link was one tough SOB. He stared the coal industry in the eye and said “Slow down. I won’t have you running amok in my state.”

I suggest what Ryan Taylor should do this winter is read Mike Jacobs’ book One Time Harvest: Reflections on Coal And Our Future.  And then decide if he really wants to be Governor. It’s apparent, to me at least, that he decided sometime in the summer of 2012 that he did not want it right now. If he changes his mind, and keeps his hand in, he could be a formidable opponent for Drew Wrigley in 2016.

So. Election Day 2012 in North Dakota is about Heidi. Not about Berg. Everyone conceded the race to him a year ago. If Heidi had chosen to run for Governor—her stated preference a year ago—she might well have defeated Jack Dalrymple, and set about the task of rebuilding the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party and bringing two-party government to her state once again. But when Kent Conrad turned the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee loose on her last year, and they were able to convince her that she had a higher calling—to save our country from an all-Republican government, forsaking her state to an all-Republican government—she became a much bigger player in a much bigger picture. For better or for worse. There are four possible scenarios that could play out Tuesday.

  1. Heidi wins, and the margin of Democrat control in the U.S. Senate is just that one seat, hers. She’s a hero.
  2. Heidi wins, and the Democrats retain control of the U.S. Senate by more than one vote. In this case, she gets to be a U.S. Senator, but she will have survived (the correct verb) the most mean, vicious campaign in state history and gained nothing much for her party, or her state.
  3. Heidi wins, but Republicans still gain control of the U.S. Senate because other candidates in key races around the country fail to hold up their end.  Refer to the last nine words in number two.
  4. Heidi loses. Refer to the last nine words in number three.

Good luck Tuesday, Heidi. You’ve done your job. You’ve run a great campaign. I hope it is number one.

3 thoughts on “Milton Who? Norman Who? Redux.

  1. Sorry, Jim, don’t buy the idea that Rick Berg’s behavior and voting pattern the last two years are somehow different than what they were when he was in the ND House. Berg’s voting record was bad before he was supposedly “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.” And to suggest that “He’ll mellow over there in the Senate, especially under the watchful eye of moderate John Hoeven” is to forget that John Hoeven has been pretty much lock step with the Say No to Everything Rebpublicans in the Senate – voting for filibusters time and time again because that was the Party directive. And no, I don’t think Berg will be “a much better Senator for North Dakota than he has been a Representative. So we’re better off having him in the Senate.” His one vote in the House with the big Republican majority didn’t matter one way or the other and neither will Kevin Cramer’s one vote, but in the more closely divided Senate every vote matters a lot, and if President Obama is re-elected and the Democrats hold the Senate, Berg will be one more obstacle, just like Hoeven has been an obstacle.


    1. Well, lucky for us, Linda, we’ll never know what kind of a Senator Rick Berg might have been. I’m guessing the one we just elected will be a pretty good one, though.


  2. I grew up in ND and left because it wasn’t worth my beating my head against a wall to change things. For years as a Wisconsin democrat, Kent Conrad was my hero and I was shocked that the Tea Party targeted him, a voice for fiscal integrity. I vacationed in Fargo & Medora in May/June. I read about Heidi and she seemed to have s chance, so I followed her campaign. She won! I really thought it was small of Berg to delay his consession speech like he did. He must have thought he’d win. Good for Heidi, Tammy Baldwin from WI and all the other women who won Senate seats. Maybe more ND women will be inspired to take on the status quo in ND.


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