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Port: The NDGOP will decide the fate of their endorsing convention this weekend, they should keep status quo

If you want to argue that the system isn't rigged, maybe don't try and rig the system.

PHOTO: NDGOP Headquarters
The sign for the North Dakota Republican Party headquarters sits along East Boulevard Avenue near the state Capitol in Bismarck.
(Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service)

MINOT, N.D. — This Saturday, Dec. 18, the North Dakota Republican Party's state committee will meet to decide the fate of its nominating convention. Will it be an actual nominating convention, with the party's delegates from across the state endorsing candidates head of the June primary vote? Or will the convention be held after the primary vote, as a sort of symbolic cocktail party that also finalizes the party's other election-year business?

That may sound like a dull and inconsequential debate, but the story behind how the party reached this juncture is interesting, and how North Dakota's dominant political organization chooses its candidate matters for every citizen of the state.

Currently, the NDGOP, like the Democratic-NPL, hold an endorsing convention in late March or early April in election years. At that convention, the party chooses national delegates and approves party resolutions, but what gets the most headlines are the candidates for statewide and federal offices who are vying for the endorsement of the party's delegates so that they can be the Republican candidate in their respective races.

Only, per state law, the endorsing conventions don't really choose the candidates for the parties. It's actually the candidate who wins the June primary vote. The only advantage the convention-endorsed candidate receives is the ability to get their name on that ballot without gathering petition signatures.

Historically, the convention-endorsed candidates also win the June primary, but two notable and recent exceptions have turned this process on its head. In 2016, Doug Burgum all but skipped the nominating convention, where his opponent Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem received the gubernatorial endorsement and ran straight to the June primary ballot where he won in a landslide on his way to another landslide victory in the November general election.

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Fargo entrepreneur Doug Burgum asks for the NDGOP endorsement for governor during the during the NDGOP convention Saturday, April 2, 2016 in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service
Fargo entrepreneur Doug Burgum asks for the NDGOP endorsement for governor during the during the NDGOP convention Saturday, April 2, 2016 in Fargo.
Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service

In 2012 current U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, who was then running for North Dakota's at-large U.S. House seat, skipped the convention entirely and defeated convention-endorsed candidate Brian Kalk in the June vote.

These developments have led some in the NDGOP to conclude that the spring endorsing convention is no longer a useful endeavor. Also, during the 2020 cycle, the NDGOP opted not to hold a convention at all amid the COVID-19 lockdowns, perhaps an easy decision given that every statewide race included a Republican incumbent who was seeking re-election. The party's state committee voted to endorse those candidates, leaving only the Superintendent race to the June primary (incumbent Kirsten Baesler, coming off a drunk driving arrest , was facing a challenger for the nomination in a race that is, at least officially, not partisan).

This cycle is different. The pandemic lockdowns are a thing of the past, and there will be competitive races in the NDGOP field. Long-time Republican Secretary of State Al Jaeger is retiring, leaving an open race, and it's not clear yet if Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who has been in office since 2001, will run for another term (he told me he would make an announcement around the Thanksgiving holiday, but one hasn't been forthcoming).

This brings us to the matter at hand. Will the NDGOP hold a spring endorsing convention, or will it hold a post-primary event that merely ratifies the statewide vote?

That question will be decided when the NDGOP's state committee - made up of its executive leaders and various district chairs from around the state - meets on Saturday.

But even the road to that meeting is a fraught one.

This spring the NDGOP's local district-level committees met to reorganize, which includes electing new district chairs and thus new members of the state committee. Except, this is also a redistricting year, and the new lines drawn by the Legislature last month mean some districts must elect new leaders.

FILE PHOTO: Kirsten Baesler, April 2, 2016 in Fargo. (Michael Vosburg/The Forum )
FILE PHOTO: Kirsten Baesler, April 2, 2016 in Fargo.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum

The state committee with its pre-redistricting membership was scheduled to meet on Nov. 13, during the redistricting special session, but that meeting was canceled after Burgum signed the redistricting bill and filed it with the Secretary of State's Office. That rendered the state committee, as it was constituted, invalid.

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Burgum's critics say he did that because he is in the faction that wants to move the endorsing convention and didn't have the votes on the state committee as it was constituted. Burgum's supporters said it was the governor's job to act on the bills the Legislature sends him, and that the NDGOP could have timed the state committee meeting better.

The Legislature also approved a policy that allows the chairman of the NDGOP, Perrie Schafer, to appoint interim district chairs who will serve in those roles until the districts impacted by redistricting can organize again.

It's those interim chairs, along with their counterparts from the rest of the districts, who will vote on the convention question this weekend.

How will the committee vote? And how accepting will a divided NDGOP be of that decision given that the key votes may come from people not elected by their district parties (though, by all accounts, Schafer did his due diligence in trying to pick people who represent those districts).

I've called around trying to handicap the vote, and nobody I've spoken to is willing to hazard anything more than a hesitant guess that the committee will probably move the convention.

Should the committee do that?

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I don't have a dog in this race - I don't consider it appropriate for a member of the news media like myself to belong to a political party - but I find the arguments against moving the convention to be persuasive.

I have spent this last year writing about a faction of the NDGOP, organized by remnants of the Ron Paul movement and motivated by Trumpism, who are seeking to take control of the party and divert it from its traditional conservative roots. That faction must be defeated for conservatism in North Dakota to thrive. Many of the people who want to move the convention see the same problem I do, and are seeking changes in how the party does its business to address it.

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But that's the wrong way.

That movement should be defeated and can be defeated, through the party's existing processes. Getting rid of the endorsing convention will only fuel the fires of already conspiracy-minded activists who describe our political process as "rigged."

If you want to argue that the system isn't rigged, maybe don't try and rig the system.

Beyond that, we must remember that the party's convention is important for motivating activists. The heat generated by competitive endorsement races drives turnout at the state convention. The activists who attend the convention are the same people who can be relied on to do the local volunteer work - putting out yard signs, knocking on doors, making phone calls, etc. - that win elections.

A diminished state convention will discourage the activists and leave the NDGOP less vibrant, and less influential, at a time when the conservative movement desperately needs leadership.

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