Mike Jacobs: North Dakota's primary election goes local

There are challenges in a number of legislative seats in a number of districts. Some of those challenged are incumbents.

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs
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The dateline on this page says that today is Wednesday, June 1, 2022. Unless there’s been some mistake, that means North Dakota’s primary election is less than a fortnight away.

The state has a long history of primary elections. In 1912, North Dakota became the first state to hold a residential primary. It soon became clear that the state’s primary was inconsequential nationally, and the state abandoned the presidential primary in the 1930s.

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Something somewhat similar happened in North Dakota in 2014.

Primaries for either offices have often been consequential. Kevin Cramer won the nomination for the state’s only seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2010 Republican primary, and Doug Burgum won the gubernatorial nomination in 2016. Both went on to win the office itself in the general election.

This year’s primary is potentially just as consequential, though on a different level. There are challenges in a number of legislative seats in a number of districts. Some of those challenged are incumbents.

The most interesting involves Rep. Jeff Delzer of Underwood, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. He was beaten in last year’s primary, but took office anyway, because one of the Republican legislative candidates died during the campaign, creating a vacancy, which the district Republican committee filled. Delzer has been targeted by Burgum, who dumped a lot of money into the race. He’s doing that again this cycle.


The governor’s interference has irritated many legislators, but Burgum has ignored their protest and asserts that he’s on good terms with the Legislature. The outcome here is in doubt. Reapportionment divided Delzer’s district and pasted it onto another, bridging the Missouri River, and bringing most of North Dakota’s coal-producing area into a single district.

More interesting still – and more in the North Dakota political tradition – the primary will highlight ideological differences among Republicans. This is a repeating strain in the state’s political history. The Nonpartisan League used the Republican primary to gain power in the state and adopted an “industrial program” that produced the state-owned Bank of North Dakota and the North Dakota Mill and Elevator.

William Langer used the primary election system to create his own political power block – one that helped him win the governorship and then regain it after he was forced out of office. He also used the primary election as his path to the U.S. Senate, where he served for 20 years.

Democrats used similar tactics to take over the NPL, a move that helped put Democrats in control of the governorship for 28 of the last 40 years of the 20th century. And it was a bitter primary election in 1992 that helped wreck the modern Democratic-NPL Party, leaving it a shell of what it had been.

As a consequence, most of the action this year is in the Republican primary. True, Democrats have a contest for the U.S. Senate seat held by John Hoeven since 2010, but neither has a chance of winning. For the record, the Democratic candidates are Katrina Christiansen, the endorsee, and Micahel Steele.

Hoeven survived a bitterly divisive convention fight, and that has carried into the primary election. That has been carried into the primary campaign, where rightwing Republicans have filed challenges against Hoeven, the party’s nominee for secretary of state and more than a score of legislative races.

On Sunday, May 29, an email with the subject line, “Important information for June 14; Read and pass on to like-minded voters.” The headline on the document read, “Patriot Alert: How to Vote to Take Back North Dakota.” It was signed by Tana Walker. I don’t know her; I was at the end of a series of forwards.

Walker appears to have done her homework. She consulted widely “across North Dakota,” and offered a list of candidates she would support. “If you are fed up with corrupt and RINO leadership in North Dakota, please pass this along,” she wrote, adding, “United we stand; divided we fall.”


She signed off with the word, “Blessings.”

Her message shows a new dimension to primaries, locality. The list of candidates she endorses is a long one. It includes school board races in Bismarck, Fargo and Valley City (though not Grand Forks), a city commission race in Bismarck and the county auditor’s office in Burleigh County.

The school and city races are final, unlike the other races, but these local races have long been decided on Primary Election Day.

For the big ticket office, the U.S. Senate, her pick is Riley Kuntz over incumbent Sen. Hoeven.

Tellingly, she writes, “To me, the most important race this primary is the one for secretary of state.” She urges votes for Marvin Lepp.

Among legislators endorsed are Jeff Magrum of Hazelton and Sebastian Ertelt of Gwinner, Katchy Skroch of Lidgerwood and Jason Heitkamp of Wahpeton, all outspoken members of the right-leaning Bastiat Caucus in the state Legislature.

And she endorses Rep. Jeff Delzer for re-election.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.

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