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GOP 'dominance' complete in North Dakota with Cramer's win

BISMARCK - If there's a point in time when North Dakota Republicans began their rise to total control of statewide elected seats, it's the 1992 election of Ed Schafer for governor.

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North Dakota Republican Party chair Rick Berg, left, and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, right, applaud as Secretary of State Al Jaeger offers remarks after watching favorable election results on Nov. 6 at Republicans' election night party in Bismarck. After the midterm election, North Dakota Republicans hold all statewide seats, including the congressional delegation. Jack Dura / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK - If there’s a point in time when North Dakota Republicans began their rise to total control of statewide elected seats, it’s the 1992 election of Ed Schafer for governor.

It’s a moment Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer referenced in his election night victory speech over Democrat Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, going back in time to when Democrats held every statewide seat but for auditor and two Public Service Commission spots.

“Along came Ed Schafer, and he proved by virtue of an optimistic personality, a high energy and a new idea that we didn’t have to always be a Democratically run state,” Cramer said to applause. “Well, tonight, 100 percent.”

'Extremely well run' In an interview, Schafer recognized Republicans’ total control as “a huge accomplishment,” a term he also noted of state Democrats’ generation of dominance before his election. Schafer was governor from 1992 to 2000, and Republicans have held the office ever since.

“For me, to enter into that arena of developing the trust of the people for Republican leadership that has now continued to grow over the last 25 years is exciting,” Schafer said. “I count that as a wonderful thing in my background, that I’ve been able to participate in the generation of that complete dominance - if that’s the word you want to use.”

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North Dakota Republican Party chair Rick Berg said the party’s dominance in state politics is a reflection of the state “being extremely well run,” while state Democrats have suffered from their national party’s message.

“So as long as the policymakers continue on the direction they’ve had for the last 20 years, I would see Republicans continuing to dominate the policymaking and the implementation of laws through the state offices,” Berg said. “That’s the other thing we hear time and time again: Every one of our state agencies is easy to work with.”

North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger was one of three new statewide Republicans also elected in 1992, with Schafer and Lt. Gov. Rosemarie Myrdal. Having been re-elected to what he has said will be his last term, Jaeger noted the Republicans’ steady pickup of seats, "strong candidates" and "quality of work."

“It’s taken time,” Jaeger said.

'A vibrant party' But how long can Republicans maintain total control? Bo Wood, professor of political science and public administration at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, said the Trump administration’s tariffs and trade war could threaten the party.

“The longer that goes on without resolution, the more likely it is to become a negative to something that is working against them,” Wood said. "That could change, certainly."

Schafer said Republicans likely stay in power as long as their ears are tuned to their electorate, though he agreed that politics is cyclical.

“The danger is when you won everything, you start thinking that you are in charge and you are responsible instead of the people, and the voters are very astute in voting for people whom they want,” Schafer said.

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Berg said stable policymaking should assure Republican majorities in the years ahead. Getting new and young men and women involved in the party is important, too, he added.

“I think we have a very vibrant party,” Berg said.

While Cramer’s win over Heitkamp for her U.S. Senate seat cements total Republican control for statewide elected seats, Wood questioned the “newness” of it all.

After all, Republicans have been driving the bus for a while now, with supermajorities in both chambers of the state Legislature amid the party's state office holders.

“The only thing that changed is Heitkamp,” Wood said. “It’s not like this is new. It’s not like this is some radical transformation from what we had before.”

'They've been liking it ever since' In an election night interview, Republican Gov. Doug Burgum applauded the first all-Republican congressional delegation from North Dakota in the modern era, complete with Sen.-elect Cramer and Rep.-elect Kelly Armstrong, who are in transition to their new posts.

North Dakota's 2018 U.S. Senate race garnered national attention for its outcome to impact the Senate's close balance of power.

Burgum said the new congressional team will work well with the Trump administration, which has shown interest in North Dakota with presidential visits, White House invitations and Cabinet members' appearances.

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“I think it’s exciting for North Dakota, particularly at this point in time because we’ve got an administration that believes in empowering states,” the first-term governor said. “We’ve got an administration that understands that the states created the federal government, not the other way around.”

In an interview before a tribal leaders forum in October in Mandan, Cramer said history would likely remember the state's Senate race for a couple reasons: the record $32 million raised total from both campaigns and for Republicans locking down all statewide offices, if Cramer and incumbents won.

Again, he invoked Schafer's run in '92.

“People liked it,” Cramer said. “And they’ve been liking it ever since.”

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Secretary of Agriculture and former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer speaks at the 2008 NDGOP State Convention at the Fargo Holiday Inn. David Samson / Forum News Service

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