Here are the two best things the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party can say about Tuesday’s election: They picked up a seat in the North Dakota State Senate, and only one of their incumbents lost.
The Senate seat was a big one: Erin Oban’s win over Senator Margaret Sitte. She was the number one target of North Dakota Democrats. Oban did it by raising enough money to win, and by running a good campaign. It’s hard to tell exactly how much money was spent on that race, because only contributions, not expenditures, must be reported in North Dakota.
Oban reported raising almost $65,000 a figure unheard of in Legislative elections in North Dakota, and a figure that might never be topped. Sitte reported just shy of $50,000, which in other years would have been about double what any other candidate raised, and which would have been enough to win.
But that doesn’t accurately reflect how much was spent on this campaign, because outside organizations and political parties both spent money independent of the candidates’ campaigns, and there’s no way to track that. Some party insiders say the total might be more than $200,000 combined. Used to be you could buy a Secretary of State’s job for that. In fact, in 2014, you could’ve. Combined, Al Jaeger and April Fairfield, who ran for that office, spent about $80,000 this year.
Democrats lost one incumbent—Rep. Ed Gruchalla from Fargo’s District 45. Ed won in 2006 and 2010, but he had a lackluster fundraising year in 2014, as did his district organization, and that, combined with what seemed to be a Republican tide at both the state and national levels, probably did him in.
Gruchalla’s loss in the House race was offset by another satisfying win for the Democrats, though, when Pam Anderson knocked off 17-year Republican House member Bette Grande in District 41 in Fargo. Grande and Sitte are the two most rabid anti-abortion voices in the Legislature. They spearheaded Measure 1, the so-called “personhood” amendment, in the last session of the Legislature. The measure lost by big numbers Tuesday, taking Sitte and Grande down with it in their districts. It lost by nearly a 2-1 margin in Sitte’s district and more than a 2-1 margin in Grande’s . Maybe it was just a bad night for Legislators whose names end in “e.”
A few other numbers of note:
- Democrats had minimal losses partly because they had few incumbents on the ballot—4 in the Senate, 9 in the House. Republicans, on the other hand, were defending 19 Senate seats and 39 House seats. The fact that they only lost two of 58 incumbents says something about the strength of their party.
- Also, Democrats failed to field a candidate in 6 Senate races and 11 House races. Republicans filled their slates in all but 2 Senate races and 4 House races. It’s pretty hard to win if you don’t have a candidate running, and Democrats set a modern day record with 17 vacancies on the ballot.
- When the Legislature convenes in January, Republicans will maintain their 2-1, veto-proof (not that they’d ever get into a veto-override situation with friendly faces at the other end of Memorial Hall) majorities: 71-23 in the House, the same as last session, and 32-15 in the Senate, one less than their 33-14 margin last session.
- When all was said and done, all the votes counted, with a total of 72 seats in the Legislature up for grabs, only three incumbent Legislators lost their jobs. Good grief, this is beginning to look a lot like the U.S. Congress, where incumbent almost never lose.
All the other races went as expected—the Democrats lost every statewide race to Republican incumbents. The margins in the two marquee races—Congress and Ag Commissioner—surprised me. I frankly thought George Sinner and Ryan Taylor would do better. Sinner lost 56-38 per cent to incumbent Congressman Kevin Cramer, and Taylor got 43 per cent to 57 per cent for incumbent Doug Goehring. Taylor was the only Democrat on the ballot who got more than 100,000 votes. It would have taken 122,000 to win. Taylor got just 105,000.
My optimism on the Democrats’ performance was based on the ground game I saw the Democrats implementing here in Bismarck. I mentioned that on Facebook Monday and one of my Democrat friends in Minot wrote me “I hope GOTV works in Bismarck, Fargo and Grand Forks. I went to do phoning on Saturday and I was the only person there for 3 hours. There was no effort in my District (5).” I wrote back “Uh oh.” I did indeed get a GOTV call Tuesday morning, but when I went to vote I noticed there was no Democrat poll checker there, a key piece of any Get Out The Vote effort. I’ve said a thousand times if I’ve said it once, elections are won by paying attention to details. I’ve preached that to young Democrats for 30 years. Nobody listens any more, I’m afraid.
Still, Senator-elect Oban piled up enough moderate Republican support to win in my district. No Democrat in Bismarck could ever get elected by relying on just Democrat votes. There aren’t enough Democrats.
Probably the biggest surprise Tuesday night was the huge losing margin for the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment, Measure 5, which lost 4-1, getting only 20 per cent of the votes. Measure 1, the “Personhood Amendment,” went down big too, 64-36 per cent. Those two contests were the only two to draw more than 250,000 voters. None of the candidates’ races reached that plateau. For a ballot measure to get more votes than any other line on the ballot is a huge surprise. A lot of people went to the polls and voted on just those measures, skipping all the other races.
And Measure 1, which was indeed about abortion in spite of protestations by its sponsors, proved my theory that North Dakota remains a pro-choice state, choosing personal liberty over religious dogma.
The other big surprise was the margin—75-25 per cent—by which voters announced they didn’t want to pay sales tax on real estate transfers. Not that anyone ever proposed one. It was the only tax issue on the ballot, and my guess is voters were saying that we have enough money coming in from the oil tax to pay the bills, so don’t try to tax anything else, Legislature.
So. All the Republicans won. All the measures lost (except for one). The Board of Higher Education got a reprieve, the initiative process remains intact, the courts will decide who’s best to care for children of divorce, small town drug stores dodged a bullet and school will continue to start in the middle of the summer. There’s no theme, there’s no connection, that I can see, among all those disparate measures. North Dakotans once again showed their independence.
But we’re still faced with one-party rule, at least for the next two years. The Democrats simply can’t find a way to articulate any thoughtful message. As Will Rogers said famously “I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”
I read this analysis of the election on Facebook on Monday, and I agree:
“Spineless Democrats. Why are Obama’s ratings low (not as low as Bush, but low)? Because his own party does not defend him, they do not defend their own ideas. They are going along with the media and the polls. If they would have had a backbone, pushed for their agenda, instead of listening to the polls, people would respect them more.”