Random thoughts on Tuesday’s election. I might have more later. I think the shell-shock is fading, but it may not be gone yet.
As the Beatles sang in their 1964 hit, “Money Can’t Buy Me Love,” Senator Heidi Heitkamp’s millions of dollars collected in the wake of her vote against Trump Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh weren’t enough to sway North Dakota’s Republican bias, and she took areal thumping in her race against Congressman Kevin Cramer for the Senate.
Midterm elections are notorious for a big dropoff in voter numbers. Not this year. In 2014, the last midterm, when North Dakota’s population was peaking because of the oil boom, 255,000 voters showed up at the polls. This year, the total was 329,000, up almost 75,000 from 2014. Go figure. In 2012, a presidential election year, when Heidi was elected, there were 326,000 voters—fewer than this year’s midterm. Heidi got 161,000 of them. Rick Berg got 158,000.
This year, there were 3,000 more voters than in 2012, but Heidi only got 144,000 votes, 17,000 fewer than in 2012. Kevin Cramer got 179,000, 21,000 more than Rick Berg did in 2012.
There are three possible explanations for those totals:
- The population of North Dakota in 2012 was just starting to swell with the oil boom—it was about 700,000. The population today is likely around 750,000. A huge number of those new people could be Republicans.
- A whole bunch of people who voted for Heidi in 2012 bailed out on her in 2018, or
- Republicans did a way better job of turning out their voters in 2018, and Democrats failed to do that.
Personally, I think it was some of all three. In 2018, Heidi had a record to defend, including her vote against Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, which I think hurt her in a state where there are a lot of Republicans, and they really like Trump. God, it hurts to say that. But it’s true.
I heard Heidi say a couple times on the campaign trail she needed to find 150,000 votes to win, so she was obviously expecting about 300,000 voters. But 329,000 showed up. If she had gotten 6,000 of Cramer’s votes, to get her to 150,000, she’d still have lost by more than 20,000.
So obviously her campaign seriously underestimated the turnout. (To be fair to her, so did I.) Nobody counted on THAT MANY Republicans to show up, a serious miscalculation. A sophisticated campaign like Heidi’s shouldn’t have made that mistake.
I also had campaign insiders tell me four days before the election that her own poll had her down by just three per cent. Given her history, I believed that if it was that close, if she was within the margin of error, she’d win. But polls don’t measure turnout.
The bottom line is, I think the Republicans probably had the best Voter Identification and Get Out The Vote effort the state has ever seen, all under the radar, and no one saw it coming. That would account for the huge turnout and the huge margin of victory for Cramer.
But Democrats should have done a better job of turning out their voters. Heidi got 17,000 fewer votes than last time. Those 17,000 voters who left Heidi this year didn’t all leave the state. Most of them likely still live here. Some of them voted for Cramer. But I think a lot of them didn’t vote, in spite of the massive ground game Heitkamp mustered at the end of the campaign.
A Democratic-NPL Party official told me the Friday before the election that they had 80 field organizers spread out across the state, and that they thought the Republicans only had 10. I’m not sure I believe those numbers now. If they’re true, they didn’t do a very good job of “field organizing.”
Frankly, I think the Republicans did a better job of finding their new voters, especially among those 50,000 people who moved here since 2102 (and if they came here because of the oil boom, they are more likely to be Republicans) and getting them to the polls. They’ve been doing that the last few elections. Democrats have some catching up to do if they’re going to be competitive. If indeed many of those 50,000 new residents are Republicans, and they’re likely here to stay for a while, that means there will continue to be more Republicans in North Dakota than Democrats, so all the Republicans have to do to win is to get their voters to the polls. Democrats need to get every one of their voters to the polls AND convince independents who vote, to vote for Democrats. Their job is harder.
All the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t stop a couple of badass grandmas from shepherding a good government measure to victory Tuesday. Measure 1, which establishes a State Ethics Commission and makes lobbyists accountable for their expenditures to influence government, passed easily. Now it’s up to the Legislature to implement the mandates set out in the new Article XIV of our State Constitution.
The measure passed in spite of a big, well-financed lineup of energy and industry heavy hitters in opposition, at least partly because of the professional management of the campaign by young Mandy Kubik from Dickinson, who succeeded in attracting national expertise and financial support for the measure. The “Badass Grandmas,” Ellen Chafee and Dina Butcher, who hired Kubik, ran an aggressive campaign with the funds they raised, spending them wisely, and while they couldn’t match the spending by business groups who financed the opposition, they were more effective, in part because as my friend Tracy Potter used to say, paraphrasing Alfred Lord Tennyson “their strength was as the strength of ten, because their hearts were pure.” They were the good guys in this contest, and sometimes the good guys win.
My old friend Perry Miller from Wahpeton came up 24 votes short in his State Senate race in District 25. Dang! Possible recount—24 votes out of more than 6,000. Perry’s popular in his home county, Richland, but Republicans gerrymandered his district, taking out some Democrat-leaning Richland County townships and adding some Republican-leaning Cass County townships during the last reapportionment. Perry won his home county, Richland County, by 215 votes but lost in Cass by 239, leaving him 24 votes behind. I hope he asks for a recount.
Starting in December of this year, North Dakota’s Congressional Delegation will be all Republican. The last time our Congressional delegation was all Republican was in 1959. Senator Bill Langer died that year and was replaced in1960 by Democratic-NPL Senator Quentin Burdick, who remained in office until he died in 1992. That began a remarkable span of almost 60 years, from June of 1960 until December of this year, in which at least one of our Senators was a Democrat. North Dakota’s delegation became all Democrats in 1986 when Kent Conrad defeated Senator Mark Andrews to join Burdick and Congressman Byron Dorgan in Washington, and the delegation remained all Democrats for 24 years, until John Hoeven’s election in 2010 when Dorgan retired. It’s going to be a long, long time before that happens again.
I won’t have to sacrifice my broccoli patch to make room to grow marijuana.
The Democrats didn’t lose any incumbents in the Legislature and actually had a small gain, with my old friend Jonell Bakke in Grand Forks’ District 43 picking up a Senate seat. Jonell served earlier, from 2006-2010, then losing to Lonnie Laffen by a margin of 2102-1872 in 2010. She lost to him again in 2014, with Laffen getting exactly the same number of votes, 2102, to Jonell’s 1841. But the third time’s the charm. This year more than a thousand new voters showed up at the polls in District 43, and Jonell beat Laffen by a margin of 2684-2416. I’m not sure what inspired more than a thousand new people to vote in her district, but Jonell managed to bring two new House members with her, with Mary Adams and Matt Eidson filling the seat vacated by retiring Democrat Lois Delmore and defeating Republican Representative Rich Becker.
The only other new Democratic-NPL Legislator is Ruth Buffalo in Fargo’s District 27, who beat incumbent Republican Randy Boehning, who got caught up in a sex scandal during the 2015 Legislative Session. After voting against a gay rights bill, Boehing was busted for sending an unsolicited photo of his penis to a young gay man in Bismarck. Disgusted with the hypocrisy of Boehing’s vote, the young fellow outed him, and Boehning was forced to admit he was bisexual and had been advertising for a “hookup” on a gay website. Boehning thought enough time had gone by that he could survive the scandal and be re-elected, but voters disagreed.
Ruth Buffalo will be the Legislature’s only female Native American Legislator (and the first in my memory), and also one of the body’s most highly educated members, with three Master’s degrees. She’s been a Fargo community activist, a Democratic-NPL endorsed candidate for State Insurance Commissioner in 2016, and is married with four children. Look for her star to rise quickly in the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party and in North Dakota state government.
With the small Democratic-NPL gains Tuesday, the breakdown of the Senate is 37 Republicans and 10 Democrats. In the House it’s 79 Republicans and 15 Democrats. So in the Legislature, Republicans hold 82 per cent of the seats. In the Capitol tower and the U.S. Capitol, it’s 100 per cent. There were a few Democratic-NPL candidates—Josh Boschee, Kylie Oversen, Mac Schneider—that I thought might have an outside chance at getting themselves elected, to give Democrats a presence once again in the Capitol. Sorry, Kylie, Josh and Mac. You ran good campaigns, but you had a fatal flaw. You had the word “Democrat” next to your name. Which leads me to these thoughts.
For all intents and purposes, the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party is bankrupt. North Dakota is now a one-party state. That’s sad. Because it wasn’t so long ago that we had an active two-party state government. Now the Democratic-NPL Party has ceased to exist. It is no longer competitive in elections. It no longer plays a role in governing North Dakota.
This is the party created by some visionaries and patriots when North Dakota’s Democrats merged with the Nonpartisan League in 1958 and elected our state’s first-ever Democratic-NPL Congressman, Quentin Burdick.
This is the party of Quentin Burdick and William Guy, elected U.S. Senator and Governor in 1960, Guy serving as our governor for 12 years and Burdick as our Senator for 32 years.
This is the party of Rolland Redlin, North Dakota’s second Democratic-NPL Congressman, who we sent to Washington in 1964 to represent us as Congress passed landmark legislation including the creation of Medicare and Medicaid and the Voting Rights Act, and who came back home and served 27 years in the North Dakota Senate, where he was known as the Senate’s greatest orator.
This is the party of Arthur A. Link, our third Democratic-NPL Congressman, who served one term in Congress after being elected in 1970 and then came home to serve as our Governor, becoming the champion for protecting our landscape and our environment by giving us the strongest mined-land reclamation laws in the country and developing out lignite industry in a cautious, orderly fashion.
This is the party of Backes, Buckshot, and Barth, and of George Sinner, Byron Dorgan, and Kent Conrad, strong leaders who gave us a Coal Severance Tax and an Oil Extraction Tax, providing funding for the creation of the best elementary, secondary, and post-secondary education system in America.
This is the party that gave us leaders in government like Bill Heigaard, John Schneider, Rick Maixner, Bruce Hagen, Walter Christenson, Byron Knutson, Wayne Sanstead, Roger Johnson, Tracy Potter, Jim Kusler, Myron Just, Lloyd Omdahl, Robert Hanson, Glenn Pomeroy, and his brother, Earl Pomeroy, our fifth and longest-serving Democrat-NPL Congressman.
This is the party that used to head for Valley City to find strong leaders like George Gaukler, David Strauss and Gorman King.
This is the party that recognized women as equal partners in government, the party of Corliss Mushik, the state’s first female Assistant House Majority Leader, and Tish Kelly, the state’s first female Speaker of the House, Ruth Meiers, the state’s first female Lieutenant Governor, and the party of Sarah Vogel, our state’s first female Agriculture Commissioner, and Heidi Heitkamp, our state’s first female Tax Commissioner, Attorney General, and elected U.S. Senator, and the party that appointed our state’s first female North Dakota Supreme Court Justice, Beryl Levine.
This is the party that filled at least one of our U.S. Senate seats continuously for nearly 60 years, from 1960 to 2018, and both of those seats for 24 years, from 1986 to 2010.
That WAS the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party, a once-proud party now relegated to the ash heap of history, a party now existing only in the clutter of just a handful of Legislators in a Capitol completely dominated by Republicans.
Whether or not it will rise from that ash heap to once again represent the proud traditions of Prairie Democracy is open to question. Will new leaders emerge? Will old leaders re-energize?
Or does North Dakota head into the future as a one-party state, the reddest of red, with a government once again dominated by the outside business interests that led to the prairie rebellion called the Nonpartisan League which, after merging with the Democratic Party, provided decades of government by and for the people of our state.
C’mon, North Dakota. C’mon, Democrats and Leaguers. Rise up. Don’t let these words be your obituary. There are a lot of people cheering for you.