McFeely: RIP, North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party
FARGO — Heidi Heitkamp was an anomaly in North Dakota politics, a Democrat who survived a statewide race years after it seemed plausible. Her victory over Republican Rick Berg for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 2012, hard-earned and well-deserved, should have given her this nickname: The Accidental Senator.
Don't misunderstand. It wasn't an accident she won the election. She was an excellent candidate, her team ran a remarkable campaign, they took advantage of facing a so-so opponent and ran a ground game second to none. She was duly elected to the Senate.
No, accidental more on the basis of history. She bucked the freight train of conservatism coming down the North Dakota tracks that claimed other Democrats. Rep. Earl Pomeroy lost to Berg in 2010. Sen. Byron Dorgan decided not to run that same year, damaged back home by his support of Obamacare. The door for Heitkamp to run was opened by her mentor, Sen. Kent Conrad, who decided not to run against the political climate of 2012.
Republican Mitt Romney won North Dakota's electoral votes by beating President Barack Obama by 20 points. Heitkamp had no business winning as a Democrat. She did and the Democratic-NPL Party was granted a six-year stay as a statewide entity. A party that should've been dead in 2010 with Pomeroy's loss and Dorgan's retirement remained on life support.
The plug was pulled Tuesday, Nov. 6, when Kevin Cramer beat Heitkamp for her Senate seat. It wasn't close. Cramer won by 11 points, 55-44, and other than blue pockets in Fargo, Grand Forks and a few other much less-populated spots, the North Dakota map was a sea of red. Deep red, in most cases.
RIP, Dem-NPL. North Dakota has completed its transformation from the prairie populism of Dorgan to the nationalist populism of Donald Trump.
Dorgan made his political name taking on the big banks, first getting elected to the U.S. House as the state's lone representative in 1980. That was the same year conservative Republican hero Ronald Reagan won the state's presidential vote with a 64.2 percent landslide.
For years, remarkable in retrospect, North Dakota was represented by three Democrats in Washington, D.C. The Dem-NPL was still a viable statewide party. Democrat Roger Johnson was the state agriculture commissioner until 2009. Wayne Sanstead, a Democrat, was superintendent of public instruction (technically a nonpartisan office) through 2012. The Legislature was sprinkled with Dem-NPLers across the state.
Tuesday, Heitkamp's 11-point defeat was the closest a Democrat could claim on the statewide ballot. Mac Schneider, an excellent candidate for the U.S. House, lost by 24 points. Josh Boschee, an engaging and sharp candidate for secretary of state, received 39 percent in a three-way race in which his two opponents were listed as independents on the ballot because the endorsed Republican candidate dropped out because of scandal.
North Dakotans, it is clear, won't fill in an oval associated with the letter "D." Returning to a point when they will take decades. North Dakota is Idaho. Or Wyoming. Heitkamp's "accidental" win in 2012 disguised that fact. Reality hit in 2018.