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North Dakota redistricting plan would set up hotly contested legislative races, top-level retirements

Under the plan, three rural legislative districts would transform into new districts in the Fargo area, the Williston area and the southwest corner of the state. The shifting lines reflect the rural-to-urban migration and enormous Oil Patch population growth over the last 10 years, but the rearrangements would mix about 30 lawmakers into districts where they would have to face fellow incumbents to win reelection.

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Sen. Jason Heitkamp, R-Wyndmere, speaks during a Senate floor session on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — A leading proposal to reconfigure North Dakota's political geography would position about a fifth of all state lawmakers in districts with more incumbents than seats in the Legislature, creating the potential for electoral battles between one-time allies and high-profile retirements.

Legislative redistricting, a process that only comes around once a decade, is almost complete. Both chambers of the Legislature this week approved a map with 47 districts of roughly equal population. The plan developed by a Republican-led committee is now destined for Gov. Doug Burgum's desk.

The proposal received strong support among lawmakers, including backing from an influential foursome of House members who would end up in the same district, but not all are pleased with the map that has emerged.

Three rural districts — two in the northeast and one in the southeast — would transform into new districts in the Fargo area, the Williston area and the southwest corner of the state. The shifting lines reflect rural-to-urban migration and enormous Oil Patch population growth over the last 10 years, however the rearrangements would mix about 30 lawmakers into districts where they would have to face fellow incumbents to win reelection.

No group of legislators has been more vocal about their disgust for the proposal than the three Republicans representing District 26 in southeastern North Dakota: Reps. Kathy Skroch and Sebastian Ertelt and Sen. Jason Heitkamp.

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With their district moving elsewhere in the state, Skroch and Heitkamp would be put into a district with incumbent Reps. Cynthia Schreiber-Beck and Alisa Mitskog and Sen. Larry Luick, while Ertelt would land with incumbent Reps. Dwight Kiefert and Cole Christensen. Since only one senator and two representatives get elected from each district, at least three of the eight incumbents would lose their seats if all ran for reelection.

The disgruntled District 26 lawmakers proposed a separate plan that would have kept their district intact, but they were rejected at every turn.

Ertelt told Forum News Service it's unfair that his district is one of three being relocated when 14 other current districts came in with lower population figures in the 2020 Census.

Skroch has said she thinks voters in her current district are being robbed of the lawmakers they elected just a year ago, though she is committed to running against the two other incumbents, including Mitskog, a Democrat, to keep her seat.

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Rep. Kathy Skroch, R-Lidgerwood, speaks during a floor session of the North Dakota House on Feb. 11, 2021. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

Heitkamp said on the Senate floor Wednesday he and his allies in southeastern North Dakota "will live to fight another day" and "find a new vessel" for political participation. The Wyndmere native told Forum News Service he plans to run for an unspecified statewide office in 2022.

Ertelt said he hasn't decided whether he'd run for reelection if he had to face off with Kiefert and Christensen, both fellow Republicans. The Lisbon representative said he believes top lawmakers wanted to squeeze him and his District 26 running mates into other districts, in part, because of their deeply conservative viewpoints.

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Rep. Bill Devlin, a Finley Republican who chaired the Redistricting Committee, discarded the idea that politics contributed to where the lines were drawn, saying "we went by the (population) numbers" and tried to keep counties and subdivisions whole.

Under the plan he helped shape, Devlin would wind up in District 29 with three other powerful lawmakers: House Majority Leader Chet Pollert and Reps. Don Vigesaa and Craig Headland. The four Republicans have served a combined 78 years in the Legislature, and their lack of objection to being mixed in the same district has fueled speculation in the chamber that two or more of the group could soon retire.

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North Dakota Rep. Bill Devlin, a Finley Republican and the chairman of the Redistricting Committee, speaks during a debate over subdivided House districts on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

Pollert declined to comment on his political future, while Vigesaa and Devlin said they'll decide whether to run again after the dust settles on redistricting. Devlin insisted that the expanding district had to be drawn in a way that includes multiple incumbents to account for the population loss in the rural eastern part of the state.

In other redrawn districts likely to include more incumbents than seats, Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman, a Democrat, and longtime Sen. Jerry Klein, a Republican, would be grouped together, while GOP Sens. Howard Anderson and Shawn Vedaa would land in the same territory.

Republican Reps. Mike Beltz, Jared Hagert and Gary Paur would also be jockeying for two seats, and only one of Democratic Rep. Marvin Nelson and GOP Rep. Chuck Damschen could represent a subdivided House district east of the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation.

Not all of the lawmakers likely to find themselves in districts with fellow incumbents are terribly upset about the arrangement. Paur said it's "awkward" to be bunched together, but he understands that "it happens" as part of the redistricting process.

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Anderson joked in a committee meeting earlier this week that "Shawn Vedaa and I, both being conservatives, have already agreed that we will take one car and campaign together if we run against each other."

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