Like I said yesterday:
All the Republicans are going to win.
The election of statewide constitutional officeholders in North Dakota is a pretty ho-hum affair this year. All the Republicans will keep their jobs. Somebody named Ryan will win. That would be appointed Tax Commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger, whose party has gathered around him to protect his dirty little secrets, albeit with some strong words, I am sure, from the governor and his chief of staff. The office of Tax Commissioner has a recent history of Commissioners being appointed to the job and then elected in their own right. Four of the last seven Tax Commissioners—Byron Dorgan, Heidi Heitkamp, Corey Fong and Rauschenberger—were appointed to the job before being elected. The big difference between the first three and the fourth is that they didn’t go partying all day on a workday with a new-found friend. And get busted for it. Only Kent Conrad, Bob Hanson and Rick Clayburgh got there of their own volition, winning the office by election, but Hanson had previously been appointed State Treasurer to start his political career. Conrad and Heitkamp, like Rauschenberger, had been the Commissioner’s chief lieutenant. The similarity ends there. But look for Rauschenberger to uphold the tradition of appointees getting elected. He’s a Republican in a Republican state. Good enough this year. In spite of his indiscretions.
The other Ryan, not so lucky, I’m afraid. Democrats started the year with great hopes for one of the nicest men in their party–maybe a bit too nice to be a good politician—Ryan Taylor, to become the state’s next Agriculture Commissioner, but I don’t think it is going to happen. Only lately has Taylor jumped on the back of the current handsome bachelor (although I heard he’s gotten engaged again) Commissioner, Doug Goehring, over his scandalous behavior toward female employees in his office. From what I hear, Goehring’s the star graduate of the Leo Reinbold School of Sexist Behavior. Too little, too late, I think, on Taylor’s part. News of Goehring’s abusive behavior toward female staff, including having one of them walk on his back in a hotel room, has been out there since early spring. Only lately did Taylor tiptoe into the issue on a TV spot (although the lateness of that spot probably was due to budgeting his limited resources). If anyone ever had a way to get women voters interested in the Agriculture Commissioner’s race, Taylor had one. Sadly, I’m afraid Taylor’s future political career is continuing in his role as a McHenry County Commissioner.
Big Oil played a role in this race, providing most of the money Goehring needs to remain a solid oil vote on the Industrial Commission. The newspapers report close to a million dollars being spent on this race, with Goehring’s oil money far ahead of Taylor’s individual contributions. The fact that Taylor has been able to raise nearly $400,000, and that Goehring is approaching half a million, including $100,000 dumped into the race by the state Republican Party in the last 10 days of the campaign, shows not only that the race might be pretty close right now, but also how important it is. Taylor’s late fundraising surge—almost $120,000 in the 30 days leading up to the election—gives lie to earlier published polls showing him substantially behind. Much of the funding has come from ActBlue, a Democrat clearing house for individual contributors.
The other thing that just pisses me off is that Goehring is another of those Republicans benefiting from “legal” corporate campaign contributions. A big chunk of Goehring’s money comes from the so-called Republican Ag Commissioners Committee, a Super-PAC type of organization in Washington DC that accepts corporate gifts and then distributes them to people like Goehring after washing them through their non-profit status. Corporate gifts are illegal in North Dakota, but the national Ag Commissioners’ Committee website says clearly “Individuals, corporations, PACs and foundations contribute to the RACC. Contribution amounts are unlimited . . .”
The other big beneficiary of those funds this year is our own Attorney General, Wayne Stenehjem who took $150,000 from a similar group, the Republican State Leadership Committee PAC, last December—a sum that turned out to be nearly two-thirds of all the money he raised for this campaign. A pretty easy way to finance a campaign. Stenehjem argues that despite the fact those PACs take corporate funds, which are illegal to use in North Dakota elections, they only send the non-corporate money on to North Dakota. Uh huh. That’s real believable. I’m picturing those folks in Washington, sitting at a long table, sorting out the checks, putting the corporate checks in one pile and the non-corporate checks in another, then endorsing the back of those non-corporate checks “Pay to _____________ (insert North Dakota Republican candidate’s name here) and putting them in a UPS package and overnighting them to the State Capitol in Bismarck, North Dakota. Or something like that. At least that way we could track them. I have to wonder how many other candidates in other states which prohibit corporate contributions are claiming those same non-corporate funds. Wonder if there’s ever an audit of those kinds of PACs. Stenehjem, by the way, is once again going to get three-fourths of the vote.
Taylor, meanwhile, must be showing well in internal polls, because his late fundraising surge makes no sense otherwise. Candidates trailing by substantial margins aren’t generally showered with the kind of money Taylor has picked up as of late. This one, and the contest for our lone Congressional seat, are the two races which could benefit from a concerted get-out-the-vote effort from their party headquarters. We’ll see if the party is up to it. If there is going to be a surprise winner in this election, Taylor could be the one. Put a capital “S” on Surprise though.
Down the ballot, I don’t see much to get excited about, other than the fact the Democrats have come up with some bright young fresh faces to groom for the future. I told one of the Democratic-NPL Public Service Commission candidates (and a few Legislative candidates as well) that there were only two issues in North Dakota this year: Safe Railroads and Safe Pipelines. Fiery train wrecks and leaky pipelines have people from Alexander to Abercrombie (and also Seattle to New York) quaking in their boots this year. Those issues could have made some North Dakota Republicans vulnerable if they had been exploited, but I haven’t seen that happen. A good part of that, I suppose, is the Democratic-NPL Party’s candidates’ inability to raise a lot of money to get on TV with their message. It’s hard to raise money when your party is at a low ebb and you’re running against well-funded, and pretty well-known, incumbents.
In Legislative races, I expect the Republicans’ two-thirds majorities in both houses will remain intact. In spite of the fact Democrats have recruited some pretty good candidates this year (including some former legislators like Tracy Potter in Bismarck, Lisa Wolf in Minot, Charles Linderman in Carrington, Tork Kilichowski in District 19, Ben Vig in District 23 and Jonell Bakke in Grand Forks), they left 16 races with no candidates at all. That has to be a modern-day record, and not one to be proud of. Still, there could be some surprises this year for the Democrats, like popular Richland County Commissioner Perry Miller in Wahpeton, running for the Senate, and baby doctor Joe Adducci (who has delivered half the residents of Williston) in District 1, and the team of former West Fargo City Commissioner Brenda Warren and Jaci Stofferahn, daughter of former Representative Scott Stofferahn, in District 13 in West Fargo for the House. Still, this is the sixth year of a Democratic President’s term, and that signals a big win for the Republicans, generally. Eight years ago, in the sixth year of George Bush’s term, North Dakota Democrats picked up about a dozen Legislative seats. But don’t expect Republicans here to do that this year, because the Democrats ain’t defending very many seats—there’s little room for gain any more on the GOP side. District 35 in Bismarck is among the most watched, with the truly unlikeable Republican Senator Margaret Sitte and charming Erin Oban spending more than a hundred grand between them, sums unheard of in North Dakota for a legislative race. Much of Sitte’s money has been provided by national anti-choice organizations. Much of Oban’s has been provided by people who don’t like those organizations. Potter could be one of the few Democrats to unseat a Republican House member, Karen Karls, here, as well. He’s by far the best campaigner of the Democrats’ legislative candidates. Don’t be surprised if the team from District 35 in the House next year is Potter and Bob Martinson. Potter, who won a Senate trace in 2006, is the only Democrat elected from Bismarck in this century. He and Oban could add to that this year.
Which brings us to that other statewide race worth mentioning, the race for the U.S. House of Representatives. George B. Sinner, the Democratic-NPL candidate, has made no secret of the fact he’d like to follow in the footsteps of his father, George A. Sinner, as Governor of North Dakota. His race for Congress this year is a tune-up for that. He’s in a no-lose situation here. He might win, and go off to Washington. But he’s running against a shrewd politician named Cramer, a man whose only lifelong ambition has been to be a United States Congressman, and despite a couple missteps, Cramer seems likely to continue in that role.
But for Sinner, even if he loses, he wins. Because he’s running a great name identification campaign, he’s building a great fundraising list, and he’s acquitted himself well with the voters. I’d be surprised if he gets fewer than 45 per cent of the voters to support him, so he has a good base of support for the Governor’s race in two years. And even if he wins, I wouldn’t be surprised if he pulls out after just one term, a la Art Link in 1970, to come home and run for Governor. Unless Senator Heidi Heitkamp decides to do that. Don’t think for a minute SHE’s not getting some encouragement to come back home and rebuild the Democratic-NPL Party by claiming the Governor’s office.
But Sinner could do that, whether he wins this year or not, just like his dad did in 1984. In 1980, the Reagan landslide year, Republicans won big, and when 1981 started, there were just two Democrats in the entire Capitol tower—Tax Commissioner Kent Conrad and Public Service Commissioner Bruce Hagen (and they were both elected on the no-party ballot). Four years later, Sinner defeated incumbent Allen Olson to start the turnaround for the Democrats, and by 1988, Democrats held every office in the Capitol except State Auditor and two of the Public Service Commission seats, as well as a majority in the North Dakota Senate. And Democrats held all three Congressional seats. And in between there, they briefly also held a majority in the State House of Representatives.
Politics in North Dakota is cyclical. Parties, led by good candidates and strong organizations (something the Democrats have been sadly lacking the past few elections), can reverse their fortunes, and the state’s voters are open to new leadership when it looks like the current leaders are failing. Sometimes those current leaders are indeed failing. But sometimes good campaigns by challengers can convince voters they are failing when they may or not be. Democrats need to decide it is time to do that—to produce good candidates and provide them a strong organization. In 2016, either Heitkamp or Sinner could start that process.
A naïve young reporter asked me recently, given the current makeup of state government, with Republicans holding every office in the Capitol, why I had chosen to stay in North Dakota rather than move to a state where my liberal politics were more welcome. Other than the fact that that would be the worst reason to abandon my home state, I answered that politics is cyclical here, and the Democrats will rule again someday. For example, I pointed out that while the current all-Republican North Dakota Industrial Commission, which regulates oil and gas development in North Dakota, is letting Big Oil run amok in our state, that will change too, one day.
In the era of the modern-day two party system in North Dakota, beginning in 1960, Democrats held the governor’s office more than half the time, for 28 of those 54 years (and between 1960 and 1992 Democrats had a Governor for 28 out of 32 years), and Democrats had a majority on the Industrial Commission for 22 years. Even without a majority of the Industrial Commission, a Governor has a Bully Pulpit, because he or she gets to appoint all the regulators. That makes the Democrats’ choice of a Governor candidate in 2016 all the more critical. Even if the Republican candidate is Jack Dalrymple. The elder Sinner (and the candidate he defeated, Allen Olson) proved that incumbent Governors can be beaten.
As an aside, there’s already speculation about who will be the Republican candidate. Dalrymple will be 68 years old if he runs for re-election. Some of my Republican friends say it is time for new, younger blood. That, they say, is why he appointed Drew Wrigley, who turns 50 next year, as his Lieutenant Governor. Many expect him to step aside for Wrigley.
But Wrigley has to get past Wayne Stenehjem, who’ll be 63 in 2016. Whether Stenehjem really wants to leave his comfortable relaxing office across the hall remains to be seen, but if it looks like there’s going to be an intra-party battle, Dalrymple might just decide to stick around for four more years to keep the blood from flowing on the floor. And if he does, it will test Wrigley’s patience. He’s an ambitious man and could make a whole lot more money as a lobbyist or lawyer than he can attending funerals and ribbon cuttings on behalf of the Governor. Don’t be surprised, if Dalrymple seeks re-election, that he runs with a different Lieutenant Governor candidate.
But that’s a ways away. Next week isn’t. I’ll check back in after the election and either eat my words or figure out how we’re going to do as a state in the next few years with no change in either our Constitution or our elected officials. No change at all, except maybe our kids will start school a little later.