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Mike Jacobs: Truth, consequence in politics

Looking back on North Dakota's year in politics, it's clear that some of what we believed was proven true while some of our assumptions were challenged. The year produced some ironies, as well. The assumption that North Dakota is a deep red state...

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Looking back on North Dakota's year in politics, it's clear that some of what we believed was proven true while some of our assumptions were challenged. The year produced some ironies, as well.

The assumption that North Dakota is a deep red state was proven true. Republicans won every statewide office. The notion that Democrats were wiped out is not true, however. The percentage of dependable Democratic voters has remained remarkably stable, suggesting that with attractive candidates and strong organization, Democrats can win, even in a deep red state.

Six years ago Democrat Heidi Heitkamp won a seat in the U.S. Senate. Conditions were more favorable then; 2012 was a presidential year, and Barack Obama led the ticket. Heitkamp's opponent was unpopular in his own party, and his legislative record and personal wealth made him vulnerable. Plus Heitkamp worked hard. She won by fewer than 3,000 votes, proving that Republicans can't count on winning despite their numerical advantage. The state's political universe - albeit a small one - breaks down this way: Democrats will draw about 27 percent of the votes and Republicans about 37 percent, given that candidates are appealing, organization is adequate, and no big mood swings occur.

That leaves 36 percent - a little more than a third - of the votes available for persuasion. Arithmetic shows that Democrats must attract many more of these votes than Republicans in order to win an election. If each party won half of the persuadable voters, Democrats would have 45 percent of votes and Republicans 55 percent.

In 2018, Heitkamp got 144,376 votes and Republican Kevin Cramer 179,720 votes. Do the math. You'll see that they split the persuadable votes almost equally, and the Democrat lost. This is a remarkably consistent outcome in high profile North Dakota elections. In 2000, the last really competitive race for governor in North Dakota, the Democrat got 45 percent of the vote and the Republican 55 percent. Heitkamp was the Democratic candidate; the Republican candidate was John Hoeven; he held the office for 10 years and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2010.

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Of course, not all persuadable voters are equally persuadable; many lean one way or the other, and more lean toward Republicans than toward Democrats. This is reflected in the results for U.S. House races. The last competitive race was in 2010, when Republican Rick Berg defeated Democrat Earl Pomeroy, who was seeking his 10th term in the House. Pomeroy got 45 percent of the votes and Berg 55 percent. The two candidates divided the votes equally.

Two years later, Heitkamp drew enough persuadable voters to keep Berg out of the Senate. In that year's House race, the Democrat won 42 percent of the vote and Cramer won 55 percent of the vote. A Libertarian candidate took the rest. In 2014, the Democrat won 38 percent of votes against Cramer; in 2016 - the Trump year - the Democrat's share sank to 23 percent. In 2018, Democrat Mac Schneider got 36 percent of the vote.

Democrats can win in North Dakota only by outperforming against these fundamentals, and developments nationally have made that more difficult. Put plainly, Democrats don't have as much to offer. In the "old days" farm subsidies and earmarks for infrastructure helped attract persuadable voters. Without these blandishments Democrats do less well - so much less well that beginning this week, no Democrat will represent North Dakotans in Congress for the first time in 50 years. That's not the whole explanation, of course; the party has had its own internal disputes, alienating some elements of the coalition that helped elect its candidates.

The conclusion here is that North Dakota is a tough state for Democrats, and to win, Democrats must avoid mistakes in organization, strategy and execution. Heitkamp herself underestimated the number of votes she'd need - 150,000, she said, or 11,000 fewer than she got in 2012. In fact, more votes were cast in 2018 than in 2012; even if she'd won as many as she did in 2012, she would have been 2,000 votes short of victory.

Heitkamp made an effort to win new voters in Native American communities, where turnout increased. She did less well among new voters in oil country.

Native Americans rewarded Heitkamp with their votes, but lost a champion in the Senate - perhaps partly because the national attention on a new voter I.D. law brought a backlash among white voters. Oil country voters didn't reward Heitkamp for her work to lift an oil export ban. It's true, as Cramer argued, that one senator alone could lift the ban and thus boost North Dakota production. It's also true that without Heitkamp's effort, the ban could not have been lifted. She worked her caucus to gain the votes.

Missed opportunities like these make it harder for Democrats to win the persuadable voters that could produce victories even in a deep red state.

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

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