MINOT, N.D. — To call the spat in the North Dakota Republican Party between the moderate-minded majority, whose competent governance is primarily responsible for the party's dominance over the decades, and the Trumpy Bastiat Caucus, which has risen to the status of a noisy minority in recent years, a "civil war" would be overstating the case.

Still, there is an intraparty conflict going on, and it is hugely consequential for the power balance in state politics.

This dispute is taking place in the Legislature, where the obnoxious behavior of Bastiat-aligned lawmakers has alienated just about everybody else, and it's playing out in local district conventions, where the Bastiats are pushing to get their people into important leadership positions.

That happened recently in District 40, a Minot-area jurisdiction where the Bastiats were able to seat a chairman who immediately moved (unsuccessfully, so far) to censure House Majority Leader Chet Pollert because of the expulsion of disgraced lawmaker Luke Simons over charges of sexual harassment.

Rep. Randy Schobinger, who represents District 40 in the state House of Representatives, told me he's not even going to be talking to his new district chair.

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North Dakota Rep. Luke Simons, R-Dickinson, speaks at a hearing on his possible expulsion over sexual harassment accusations on Thursday, March 4. (Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service)
North Dakota Rep. Luke Simons, R-Dickinson, speaks at a hearing on his possible expulsion over sexual harassment accusations on Thursday, March 4. (Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service)

Something different happened in District 39 last night. It's in western North Dakota, in the oil-rich area around Watford City, and is supposed to be a Bastiat stronghold.

Yet the Bastiats just got swept out of power there.

The incumbent district chairman Ben Simons, brother to Luke Simons, was defeated in a re-election bid by a landslide. Gretchen Stenehjem, a relative by marriage to Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, and wife to 1st International Bank CEO Steve Stenehjem got 136 votes to Simons's 73 in a turnout that, I'm told, is about double what the district typically sees.

Bastiat-aligned Vice Chairman Perry Remond also lost, as did the incumbent Secretary and Treasurer. The people newly-elected to those positions are Cal Klewin, Jeff Schafer, and Calli Thorne, respectively.

In short, it was a clean sweep for the Bastiats and the Simons family. Especially Luke Simons who, after getting canned from the Legislature for acting like an unrepentant boor, has been trying to leverage his phony-baloney martyrdom into some political muscle.

The Simons brothers campaigned hard to hold onto this district, and they lost big.

In western North Dakota, one of the most conservative parts of the state.

The Bastiats are already deploying Trump's playbook for spinning election losses - the "establishment" cheated, "the fix was in," etc. — and at one point during the tense district meeting one Bastiat activist had the temerity to accuse Gretchen Stenehjem of being a carpetbagger in the district (she's lived in Watford City for decades).

But we know all about those wild-eyed accusations by now.

The Bastiats lost, fair and square, and that's an accurate reflection of their actual strength in state politics, though they were successful in censuring Rep. Denton Zubke for, among other things, supporting the expulsion of Luke Simons.

A photo of a resolution approved in District 39 censuring Rep. Denton Zubke
A photo of a resolution approved in District 39 censuring Rep. Denton Zubke

A largely symbolic victory that, I'm certain, will have little bearing on Zubke's political career.

The Bastiats win through secrecy — membership of their legislative caucus is closely guarded — and by ambushing local political competitions. When they're forced to campaign openly, they lose.

Bastiat candidate, Rep. Dan Johston (R-Kathryn), an aficionado of Qanon conspiracy theories, lost the NDGOP primary race for state Treasurer last year, despite endorsements from then-sitting President Donald Trump and My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell.

The Bastiat slate of legislative candidates got creamed in the primaries, too.

Bastiat Caucus founder, Rep. Rick Becker (R-Bismarck), tried to flex his political muscle by promoting the candidacy of independent candidate Michael Coachman in last year's gubernatorial race, to no discernible effect.

That Bastiats, it must be said, are more hot air than substance.

That isn't to say that mainstream Republicans shouldn't be cautious. The Bastiats, though few in number, are well-organized and very motivated. They know how to get their people to show up. In districts where more moderate Republicans have become complacent, they can pick up some wins by putting even a couple of dozen butts in the seats.

When mainstream Republicans show up in numbers, the Bastiats are relegated to the cranky, whining minority they deserve to be.

To comment on this article, visit www.sayanythingblog.com

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at rport@forumcomm.com.