OUR OPINION: The three parties of North Dakota

Years ago, a Grand Unifying Theory surfaced that helped explain North Dakota politics. Maybe you've heard it: "North Dakotans want to get as much as they can from Washington while sending as little as possible to Bismarck."...

Years ago, a Grand Unifying Theory surfaced that helped explain North Dakota politics. Maybe you've heard it: "North Dakotans want to get as much as they can from Washington while sending as little as possible to Bismarck."

A tidy summation, don't you think? When you recall the political landscape in those days -- the years in which North Dakota had a Republican governor, Republican majorities in the Legislature and an all-Democratic congressional delegation -- the theory explains a lot. For example, it explains why the Democratic congressmen kept getting re-elected, usually by healthy margins, even as voters handily rejected one Democratic governor candidate and presidential candidate after another.

Through war and peace, prosperity and recession, the pattern held. And any Republican who ran for, say, U.S. Senate was a sacrificial lamb, a fact that made frustrated GOP leaders gnash their teeth.

But the theory's looking a little frayed these days, given Republican Sen. John Hoeven and Rep. Rick Berg's elections in 2010. (Note: The word is "frayed," not "unraveled." The theory's overall tapestry remains intact, as shown by the speed with which both Hoeven and Berg started earnestly seeking funding for vital projects such as Grand Forks Air Force Base and the Fargo flood diversion.)

In any event, given the 2010 results, maybe it's time for a fresh look at the state's political climate and a supplemental Grand Theory.


Here's a start:

There are three political parties in North Dakota: conservative Republicans, moderate Republicans and Democrats.

And a whole lot of what happens in Bismarck results from the interaction between the three.

This summary describes North Dakota's recent history nicely, and it's a lot more "on point" than it would have been in, say, 1995. The reason is simple: money. North Dakota in 1995 didn't have much money, so there wasn't a lot for lawmakers to quarrel over. Given those empty treasury accounts, the two parties at the time might as well have been called Stingy and Stingier.

But that started to change in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the state's economy started to rev up. By mid-2004, North Dakota's economy had grown almost continuously for 33 consecutive months, Creighton University's economic survey at the time noted.

That growth accelerated in recent years thanks to rising crop prices and the oil boom.

Today, there's money in the state bank and lots of questions over what to do with it.

Enter the three parties of North Dakota.


At this point, it's safe to say that the "moderate Republican party" commands the loyalty of a majority of North Dakotans. One glance at Hoeven's Election Day vote totals tells observers all they need to know.

And moderate Republicans are not Democrats, despite conservative Republicans' claims to the contrary. Plenty of traditional Democratic concerns such as pro-union legislation, anti-poverty measures and human-rights activism get very little bipartisan support.

But Democrats still play a key role, because when they ally with moderate Republicans on various "good government" proposals, they often provide the margin of victory.

Centers of Excellence. University system strength and growth. A reluctance to "cut taxes for just for cutting taxes' sake," and a willingness to accept that in modern America, government played a key role in making ours the richest and strongest country on Earth -- these are the kinds of issues around which Democrats and moderate Republicans unite.

So, at this point in North Dakota's history, the teeth-gnashing and hair-pulling usually is being done by conservative Republicans. Try as they might, they can't seem to convince a majority that South Dakota -- where conservatives hold sway -- is the better state, and that North Dakota should adopt the policies of its neighbor to the south.

That argument remains a tough sell, given North Dakota's success with using bike trails, vibrant universities, public-private partnerships and the like to boost the quality of life at moderate cost.

But all of this remains an unfinished story, one that's unfolding in fascinating ways. And as it continues, the three parties of North Dakota are sure to keep playing lead roles.

Opinion by Thomas Dennis
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