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Mike Jacobs: Incumbency matters, but no guarantee

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp holds a town hall in March 2014 in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

A review of North Dakota political history provides background for the 2018 U.S. Senate race in the state, a contest that is developing quickly and attracting exceptional attention nationally.

Last week, Heidi Heitkamp, elected in 2012, announced her intention to run again. She's a Democrat. Republicans both locally and nationally imagine that she is vulnerable, and a passel of Republicans are potential candidates. One, state Sen. Tom Campbell of Grafton, has started his campaign.

The history of North Dakota's U.S. senators is a little bit complicated.

Like every other state, North Dakota has two seats. A total of 23 individuals have served, but the official count is 24 senators, since one occupied both seats — successively, of course, not concurrently.

This yields an average tenure of about 10.5 years (128 years of statehood times two seats divided by 24 senators). The figure is misleading, though, because six of the senators served less than a year and in one case less than two months.

Ten senators served more than 18 years, or three full terms (counting Kent Conrad's combined service). Two of them served more than 30 years.

That's a lot of longevity and a lot of successful re-election campaigns. But that's misleading, too. Of the 23 individuals who've served as senator, 10 were defeated for re-election. Part of this surprising record can be attributed to election laws. Another, bigger, part is a consequence of the state's stormy political history.

In the early years of statehood, U.S. senators were chosen by the state Legislature. In 1907, the Legislature devised a method of testing voter preferences, six years ahead of adoption of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which established popular election of senators.

Five senators were chosen by the Legislature. All of them lost re-election contests. Of these, three were defeated by legislators. A fourth was defeated in one of the first popular votes for a senator in U.S. history.

Martin Nelson Johnson — perhaps the best ballot name ever in North Dakota history — won that preference primary, held in 1908, and the Legislature ratified the voter's choice. This turned Henry Hansbrough out of the seat he had held for 18 years, having been three times elected by legislators.

Johnson died less than eight months later. The first senator appointed to succeed him resigned after 82 days in office and the next appointee was defeated in the first direct election of a senator in the state's history. His name was William Purcell. He was a Democrat. The victor was Asle J. Gronna, who entered American history as one of what President Woodrow Wilson called "a little group of willful men" who opposed arming merchant ships, fighting World War I and entering the League of Nations. Gronna was beaten in the primary election of 1920 by Edwin Ladd, president of North Dakota Agricultural College (now NDSU).

Ladd was the candidate of the Nonpartisan League, which ran its candidates in the Republican primary.

The fifth of the Legislature's Senate choices survived his first popular election, but he couldn't withstand the NPL tide. Porter J. McCumber, who is remembered as the author of a tariff bill, was beaten in the election of 1922. The winner was Lynn J. Frazier, the League governor who had been recalled from office in 1921, the first use of the recall in the nation's history. Frazier lost his fourth election bid in the primary of 1940, to William Langer, the most colorful of

the state's politicians.

Ladd died in office, and the League governor appointed Gerald P. Nye to the Senate. Nye chaired a Senate committee that blamed World War I on munitions makers. He lost his seat in 1944, to John Moses, a Democrat. Moses died after only 59 days in office, the shortest tenure among North Dakota's U.S. senators.

His successor was Milton Young, a Republican, who holds the state record for service in the U.S. Senate, 35 years and 305 days. For much of his tenure, his Senate colleague was Quentin Burdick, a Democrat, who served for 32 years.

Clearly state voters valued longevity.

After Nye's defeat, 42 years passed before another incumbent was turned out of the U.S. Senate. In 1980, Mark Andrews was elected to succeed Young, but the 1986 election brought Conrad to the Senate, where he served for 24 years, first occupying the seat that Andrews had inherited from Young, then moving to the seat that Burdick had held.

That's the seat that Heitkamp will defend in 2018.

This review shows that incumbency matters in North Dakota, but it also shows that it is no guarantee. It's also important to remember that history provides context for election

results, but it doesn't predict which candidate will win.

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