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Mike Jacobs: Mischief afoot in state Senate race

Gary Emineth. Herald file photo. 1 / 2
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The man behind one of the initiated measures on North Dakota's November ballot is also a candidate in one of the state's most watched legislative races. The two may be related. Gary Emineth, petitioner and candidate, has a history of political mischief making.

Earlier this year, he was briefly a candidate for the U.S. Senate. The Dickinson Press nailed that story with its headline, printed Jan. 29. Emineth, it said, "teases U.S. Senate run." He was essentially a place-holder for U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, who didn't make up his mind to run until mid-February, after a personal appeal from Donald Trump. Emineth spoiled the surprise by withdrawing before Cramer made his own announcement.

Emineth's brief candidacy got attention without being consequential, rather like his initiated constitutional amendment, which has drawn attention even though it doesn't have much substance. The proposal would replace language saying that "every citizen" may vote to say that "only citizens" may vote. As pointed out last week, this has semantic power but it doesn't really change who can vote. Its apparent exclusivity may have some appeal, and it certainly won't hurt a candidate running to the right of the political spectrum.

Thus its utility in Emineth's legislative campaign. He is the Republican candidate for the state Senate in District 35. The district encompasses much of the area between the state capitol grounds and Interstate 94 in Bismarck. This is a compact, urban district. Its population is a bit younger and whiter than the adjoining inner city district to the south, where the Native American population is close to 8 percent, and a bit older than the more strictly suburban district to the north. Its proximity to the capitol grounds suggests that the district it has more voters who work for the state than most others.

None of this suggests the district's remarkable electoral history, however. Its state House members, both Republicans, are senior members; Karen Karls has served in six sessions and Bob Martinson in 20. No senator elected from the district has served more than one term, or two sessions.

Erin Oban won the seat for Democrats in 2014, defeating Margaret Sitte by 877 votes. Sitte's legislative history is a bit complicated, reflecting the volatility of the district. She was elected to the House in 2002 and served in two sessions (a single term; both House and Senate terms run for four years). She narrowly lost the 2006 state Senate race to Tracy Potter, who left the seat in 2010 to run for the U.S. Senate. Sitte won the seat in that election, then lost it to Democrat Erin Oban in 2014.

This chronology doesn't reflect the dramatic swing among voters. Potter is among the most progressive of the state's Democrats; he served as deputy to Insurance Commissioner Byron Knutson. Sitte, on the other hand, is one of the most conservative of recent legislators, especially on social issues. She sponsored a human life amendment to the constitution that voters rejected by a large margin in 2014. Potter, former state senator and former U.S. Senate candidate, ran for a state House seat that year, losing to Karls by 278 votes.

Oban is one of only nine Democrats in the state Senate, and none lives west of her.

Emineth, the Republican candidate, served as the state party chair and a member of the Republican National Committee from 2007 to 2010. He made some mischief in the latter role, aligning himself with the Tea Party Caucus and threatening to challenge the RNC chair. His brief campaign for the U.S. Senate drew national media attention when he used a derogatory term to describe President Obama and suggested no new mosques should be built in the United States. His other relevant political experience is serving as a member of the city council in Washburn, N.D., where he owned a grocery store, and losing a state House race in 1984. In 2016, Emineth was a delegate to the party's national convention.

He's dabbled in media, too, briefly owning a newspaper called "The Great Plains Examiner" in partnership with Scott Hennen, whose career in radio talk began in Grand Forks. Emineth's son, Austin, inherited the mischief-making gene; he was chair of College Republicans at UND and gained attention for unfurling a huge banner at a UND hockey game in 2015. "Fire Kelley," the banner said. Robert O. Kelley was UND president from 2008 to 2016.

This year 22 Senate seats will be decided; Democrats have candidates in 19 districts; in one, District 9, they are unopposed. Republicans are unopposed in three districts. These numbers mean that Democrats would have to win 95 percent of races in order to win a Senate majority.

It's a tough road, which only makes a competitive district, like District 35, more critical and therefore more interesting.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.

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