In 130 years of statehood, North Dakota has sent 47 individuals to the U.S. Congress, 24 to the Senate and 30 to the House, seven of whom later served in the U.S. Senate, including incumbent Sen. Kevin Cramer.
On the whole, these individuals were just that, establishing reputations as independents or even as contrarians – several of them notoriously so.
This reputation was established early, when the state’s first congressman, Henry C. Hansbrough, challenged and defeated Gilbert Pierce, the state’s first senator. Hansbrough was an especially quarrelsome individual, perhaps reflecting his earlier career as a newspaper publisher. He was a free silver man in the hard money administration of William McKinley. Initially a supporter of the new president, Theodore Roosevelt, Hansbrough became a critic, arguing that TR hadn’t done enough to bust the trusts.
Hansbrough’s colleague in the Senate during the McKinley years was William Nathaniel Roach, a consistent critic of the war with Spain – a war that Roosevelt ginned up and joined. Both Roach and Hansbrough were defeated for re-election, Roach by the Legislature, which at that time chose senators. Hansbrough became one of the first senators beaten in a popular vote when North Dakota adopted a system directing the Legislature to elect the leading vote-getter in a primary election.
Porter J. McCumber, who replaced Roach, became a leading monetary theorist who favored expanding tariffs to cover more goods and raise more money for the federal treasury, partly to blunt the impact of the graduated income tax that President Woodrow Wilson had succeeded in getting through Congress.
Asle J. Gronna eventually took Hansbrough’s seat, following a death, two gubernatorial appointments and an election. Gronna had been a member of the House; in both chambers he was a vocal critic of Wilson, and especially of the League of Nations. Gronna, too, lost his re-election bid.
His successor, Edwin Ladd, led a crusade for pure food labeling; he’d been president of the state agricultural college, now NDSU. He died in office, and Gerald P. Nye, perhaps the most notorious of the state’s contrarians, was appointed. Nye’s tenure lasted until 1944, and he took advantage of his position to criticize American foreign policy; World War I, he maintained, was caused by a conspiracy of munitions makers who profited from the war’s carnage. Nye remained a leader of the isolationist “America First” movement until he was defeated in 1944.
Lynn J. Frazier, Nye’s colleague in the Senate, was essentially a pacifist, saying he wouldn’t support military conscription even in time of war. Frazier and Nye were not alone in their anti-war sentiments. Louis B. Hanna, a House member and later governor, led a “peace ship” to Europe before World War I.
Frazier is better remembered as an advocate for farm legislation at a time when agriculture was largely unsubsidized. He was the Senate sponsor of farm lending legislation authored by William Lemke, a member of the House. Lemke’s theories about money made him a bitter critic of President Franklin Roosevelt, and he became the Union Party’s presidential candidate in 1936, a decision that stained his historical reputation – but didn’t decrease his effectiveness in Congress or his appeal to North Dakota voters. Although Frazier was defeated for re-election in 1938, Lemke recovered and served in Congress until his death in 1950 (on his way to a campaign event). His colleague in the House, Usher Burdick, was Lemke’s equal in independence – though not, perhaps in impact.
Frazier’s replacement in the Senate was William Langer. Milton Young took Nye’s seat when his elected successor died after just two months in office. Langer quickly gained a reputation as a quirky maverick, while Young was identified as Mr. Wheat, a role he played effectively by cultivating senators from similarly agricultural states in the South. He even threatened to bolt the Republican Patty to support Georgia’s Richard Russell for the presidency.
Langer’s death in 1959 brought Quentin Burdick to the U.S. Senate. He was a dependable liberal voice for more than 30 years. Young left the Senate in 1980, to be replaced by Mark Andrews. Like many of his predecessors, Andrews sought an independent course, choosing issues in which to break with the Reagan administration. Democrat Kent Conrad, who defeated Andrews in 1986, became a budget hawk in the Senate; his colleague Byron Dorgan was a consistent critic of the Clinton administration’s free trade policies.
These two served into the modern era. Dorgan’s seat went to John Hoeven in 2010. Heidi Heitkamp replaced Conrad in 2012. After a single term in which she charted a middle course in an increasing divided Congress, Heitkamp lost her seat to Kevin Cramer, who had been a member of the House.
Today’s delegation consists of Sens. Hoeven and Cramer, and Rep. Kelly Armstrong, serving his first term in the U.S, House. This trio has been consistently in sync with the Trump administration. Critics have suggested they’re “complicit.” That’s a loaded word, of course; perhaps “docile” is more appropriate.
Neither description would have fit any previous delegation as a whole nor most of the individuals who represented the state in Congress.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.