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MIKE JACOBS: North Dakota produces few presidential candidates

The list of presidential candidates with North Dakota ties is not a long one.

Four come to mind, and it's audacious to claim three of them.

Of course, Theodore Roosevelt did say he wouldn't have been president if he hadn't spent time in North Dakota—but it wasn't much time. He became president when William McKinley was killed, and he ran twice, winning as a Republican in 1904 and losing in 1912, when he ran on the Bull Moose ticket.

Eugene McCarthy, the anti-war candidate of the 1960s, taught in Mandan, N.D., and met his wife there. He was a candidate at several Democratic conventions, and he reached the ballot in a few states, but he never mounted a nationwide general election campaign.

This year, Gary Johnson is the candidate of the Libertarian Party, as he was in 2012. He was born in Minot, and he told the Herald's Sam Easter in a recent interview that he regards North Dakota as part of his "formative years."

He hasn't lived here since he was five years old, however. His education, his business and his political success came in New Mexico, where he's lived since he was 13.

Johnson is on the ballot in 39 states so far (not yet in Minnesota, by the way), and he's pushing for all-state ballot access. He's reached double digits in some polls in some states, and there's a chance he could be included in presidential debates.

The one authentic, all-out, no-questions-asked North Dakotan who's been a presidential candidate is William Lemke.

His campaign, undertaken 80 years ago, was more of a vendetta than a victory march.

Lemke was born in Minnesota, but he grew up in North Dakota's Towner County, and he graduated from UND. Lemke was an important figure in the Nonpartisan League, which seized power in North Dakota in 1916 and governed, intermittently, for almost half a century.

This meant that Lemke was two things: an economic interventionist and a Republican, because the League was left-leaning but entered its candidates in Republican contests. Even in Lemke's day, that required political gymnastics.

Perhaps Lemke's most important role in American political history was engineering Franklin Roosevelt's first primary election victory—in North Dakota. Roosevelt was a Democrat, of course, but Lemke imagined that Roosevelt would embrace his economic ideas. Roosevelt began his quest for the White House here, and he won a convincing victory. That helped him leverage support in other Midwestern states, and turned him from an underdog to a serious contender.

That was in 1932, and Lemke himself was on the ballot as a Republican candidate for Congress from North Dakota backing the Democratic candidate for president.

Both men won.

Lemke arrived in Washington believing that Roosevelt owed him something. He introduced a four-point economic program, and he expected Roosevelt's support. The president was a monetary conservative, however, despite his big-government ideas. And he opposed Lemke at every step.

Only one of Lemke's ideas was passed, and Roosevelt signed it reluctantly. This effectively granted a moratorium on farm bankruptcies. The Supreme Court ruled the idea unconstitutional. After Lemke watered it down, Congress passed it yet again; and for a dozen years, it was the law of the land.

Lemke's other ideas, including refinancing farm debt and establishing a national bank that would control the currency, didn't fare so well.

Lemke felt betrayed. He allowed himself to be wooed by populist elements. These included Francis Townsend, whose pension ideas pre-dated and helped shape the Social Security system; Father Charles Coughlin, "the radio priest"; and Gerald L.K. Smith, whose historical reputation is as a racist and an anti-Semite. These three were heirs of Huey Long, nicknamed "The Kingfish," governor of Louisiana and later senator, who had built a populist political movement under the motto, "Every man a king!" He was assassinated in his state capitol in 1935.

Lemke was both a willing and an unwitting pawn. In 1936, he made, as his biographer Edward C. Blackorby says in "Prairie Rebel," the most significant mistake of his political life when he became the Union Party candidate for president. "Union" here refers to the disparate elements of Long's legacy.

Lemke probably didn't expect to win. Instead, he imagined a close race between Roosevelt and Republican Alf Landon. He hoped he'd be the broker when the contest ended up in the U.S. House. His name appeared on the ballot in 35 of the 48 states, but in the end, he won just under 2 percent of the popular vote.

Roosevelt was re-elected in a landslide, winning every state except Maine and Vermont.

In the same election, Lemke was re-elected as a Republican to the U.S. House for his third term. He lost one election, in 1940, but he won again in 1942. He served until he died in 1950. In all, he served in the House for 15 years.

Blackorby assessed the man this way: He was a man of "fixed ideas and little flexibility."

And "he looked upon himself as a kind of savior."

This didn't prove a recipe for success in presidential politics.

Jacobs is retired as editor and publisher of the Herald. Readers can reach him at mjacobs@gfherald.com.

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