The North Dakota Democratic Party has been pronounced dead so many times that I thought I might write an obituary, but when I went poking around the data points, I found surprising signs of life.
Democrats improved their showing substantially over 2016, recovering to about a quarter of the votes cast in the governor’s race. That’s roughly the number we reporters used to figure that a donkey running as a Democrat would get. The figure was pretty much the rock-bottom showing for Democrats until the party’s collapse early this decade.
In 2016, the gubernatorial candidate got 19.4%, which amounted to 65,865 votes. This year’s candidate, Shelly Lenz, got 90,445 votes, or almost 25,000 more, bringing her to 90,443 votes, or 25.4%. That’s a significantly higher percentage of a considerably larger total number of votes cast.
Gov. Doug Burgum was re-elected with 69.9% of votes cast. That amounts to 25,122 votes fewer than he received in 2016. That suggests that Democrats have come home to their party.
Down ballot races offer more evidence. The party’s candidates for auditor and public service commissioner got 32% of votes cast and the treasurer candidate got 34%. There are extenuating circumstances, including a push among some Republicans to punish the state auditor, running for reelection, for example, and among others to chasten the state treasurer candidate, who won nomination in the June primary. The numbers were relatively small, however, suggesting that neither effort met significant success.
This might bring comfort to mainstream Republicans. The rightward-leaning Bastiat Caucus, led by Rep. Rick Becker of Bismarck, had promoted a write-in candidate for governor, and some disappointed backers of the candidate for treasurer who lost in the primary had encouraged votes for the Democrat, Mark Haugen. Among these was Kris Cramer. You’ll recognize the name; she’s married to Kevin Cramer, one of Donald Trump’s mouthpieces in the U.S. Senate.
Donald Trump won 65% of the vote for president, an improvement of 2% over his showing in 2016; Joe Biden won 31.7%, an improvement of 4% over Hilary Clinton’s showing in 2016.
The takeaway here is that Becker and his allies were apparently unable to rally voters to alternate candidates. Success is easier to come by in district conventions, it turns out.
For Republicans, the oddest circumstance was a dead man’s victory in a high-profile legislative race. This story gained international attention, for the oddness of it, not for its importance in North Dakota politics. It is the part of the most important continuing story in North Dakota politics, however, having to do with relations between the governor and the Legislature.
Republicans cleaned up in legislative races. Democrats are reduced to seven members in the Senate and 14 in the House, not enough to seat a member on every legislative committee. Worse still for Democrats, none of their candidates won in a district west of Interstate 29.
The large Republican majorities may be secure, but they are not stable. Infighting among Republicans has already begun, spurred by the governor himself, who invested heavily in both the primary and general election campaigns to defeat the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Jeff Delzer. This irked many Republican House members.
On Wednesday morning after the election, the governor appointed someone to assume the House seat, an apparent attempt to ward off Delzer’s reappearance in the Appropriations Committee chair. State law says that a vacancy in the Legislature can be filled by the executive committee of the lawmaker’s party. Burgum argued however, that he fulfilled his “constitutional duty” by filling the office – before it is officially vacant, since Delzer’s term runs through the end of the month.
For the second time this cycle, legislators mumbled that Burgum must have slept through his civics class, because he’s missed the point of the separation of powers doctrine. The issue is heading to court, probably, and then to the House itself, which is the judge of its own members. All of this points to a strained relationship between Burgum and legislators; House Majority Leader Chet Pollert has said as much.
As for the two constitutional amendments: both were soundly defeated, extending a pattern for legislative ideas. Amendments initiated by citizens have a better track record. That’s part of the rationale behind Measure 2, which came from the Legislature and would have amended the constitution to give legislators a role in determining the fate of constitutional amendments initiated by petition.
Measure 1 would have enlarged the state Board of Higher Education, nearly doubling its size from eight voting members to 15. Burgum invested heavily in opposing the idea, another poke at legislators, who offered the idea after they defeated Burgum’s own proposal to create three separate boards (later amended to just two).
In conclusion, it was not a surprising election; a Republican landslide was expected, there were quirks nonetheless, not least of them a record-setting turnout, which was 363,006, according to the secretary of state’s North Dakota Election Portal, source of all this data.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.