Here Are the Battleground Districts in North Dakota’s Legislative Races


ND State Capitol (Korrie Wenzel/Grand Forks Herald)

I don’t expect the 2018 election cycle to change much in terms of who controls state government in North Dakota.

On the statewide ballot the only really competitive race at this point seems to be the Secretary of State race, and there are some bizarre circumstances there. The endorsed Republican candidate, Will Gardner, withdrew from the race amid scandal this year (a NDGOP official tells me he formally submitted a letter last night declining the primary nomination he won by default). That leaves Republicans in the position of having to run incumbent Al Jaeger, who lost to Gardner at their state convention in April, as an independent against Democratic candidate Josh Boschee who is both well funded and beholden of a reputation as an aggressive and competent campaigner.

The rest of the statewide races feature strong Republican incumbents facing inexperienced and marginal Democratic challengers.

In the Legislature, however, there could be a number of interesting races.

Currently Republicans hold enormous majorities in both chambers. They have 38 of 47 seats in the Senate, and 81 of 94 in the House. Half of those seats – those in odd numbered districts – are on the ballot this cycle. While it’s deeply unlikely that Democrats will take over control of either chamber – they haven’t controlled the House since 1984, and their last majority in the Senate was in 1994 – based on the primary vote earlier this week there are some Republican incumbents who look weak as well as at least one Democrat.

I created this list by looking at the primary voting results and picking out Republicans who either got fewer votes than their opponents or were close in the vote totals.

Remember for context that statewide Republican candidates averaged an almost 2-1 vote margin over Democrats.

There are more Republicans on this list than Democrats because, to be perfectly honest, Democrats just don’t have that many incumbents on the ballot and those that are on the ballot tend to represent those few pockets in the state that are solidly blue.

Also, these races are notoriously difficult to handicap. They’re intensely local, hinge on things like personality and perception over policy, and are often settled by tiny vote margins.

But in my opinion these are the races worth watching. Feel free to add your own in the comments.

District 35 In Bismarck: Senator Erin Oban

Believe it or not, Democrats don’t have a single member of the Legislature elected west of Bismarck. Oban’s seat in District 35 is as far west as our liberal friends go. And based on the primary votes this week, Oban may be in trouble.

She’s facing a challenge from colorful Republican character Gary Emineth. He’s a former chairman of the NDGOP and, for a while earlier this year, was a candidate for the U.S. Senate.

He did a lot better on the primary ballot than Oban did, and that might spell trouble for the Democrat in what has been historically a very Republican part of the state. Emineth pulled in 449 more votes than Oban did which, in a Legislative race, is a big margin.

In the House race, Republican incumbents Bob Martinson and Karen Karls also enjoyed wider margins over their Democratic challengers.

District 41 In Fargo: House Majority Leader Al Carlson, Senator Kyle Davison

In the 2016 election cycle Republicans managed to defeat the leaders of the Democratic caucuses in both the House and the Senate. They also defeated party chairwoman Kylie Oversen. But in the 2018 cycle it seems Democrats could return the favor.

Carlson not only came in second place in the Republican primary each of the Democratic candidates – incumbent Pamela Anderson and newcomer Brandon Medenwald – pulled in more votes than he did. Carlson got 95 fewer votes than his running mate Michelle Strinden and 30 votes fewer than Medenwald. Overall Carlson got the fewest votes of the four House candidates on the ballot in his district.

Republicans should feel deeply uncomfortable with Carlson’s chances at re-election.

Senator Kyle Davison, the Republican incumbent in District 41, also seems to be in for a close race. He got 3 fewer primary votes than his Democratic opponent Paula Thomas.


District 43 In Grand Forks: Senator Lonnie Laffen, Rep. Rich Becker

Laffen has been a target for Democrats for a while now. Most recently they made a stink – even going so far as to file a complaint with federal authorities – over Laffen taking nearly $3,000 in campaign contributions from a Canadian citizen between the 2010 and 2014 election cycles. These contributions were disclosed, I should point out, and there is no state law prohibiting them. Democrats argued, however, that they contributions may have violated federal law. Laffen returned the money and the issue blew over.

But Democrats are gunning for him, and on primary day he got 7 fewer votes than his Democratic opponent JoNell Bakke.

Meanwhile his fellow incumbent Rich Becker, who serves in the House, got just one more vote than Democratic opponent Matt Edison and 94 fewer votes than Democrat Mary Adams who was the top recipient of votes among the House candidates. The district currently has a Republican Senator, Laffen, and a bipartisan House delegation between Becker and Democrat Lois Delmore. But Delmore is retiring. Republicans are running Ben Olson who got the fewer number of votes in the district.

District 45 In Fargo: Rep. Mary Johnson and Rep. Tom Kading

Incumbent state Rep. Mary Johnson tied with Democratic challenger Lukas Maghan, and received 27 fewer votes than Democratic challenger Tim Hoye.

Incumbent Tom Kading, meanwhile, was the top vote-getter in the district by only by a margin of 31 votes.

On the Senate side incumbent Republican Ron Sorvaag is facing Danielle Pinnick. Sorvaag received 761 votes, outperforming his House running mates.

Other Tight Races

I think the four districts mentions above – three in the Red River Valley and one in Bismarck – are the battlegrounds for the 2018 cycle but here are some other races which, while probably not as competitive as those above, bear watching:

  • District 13 In West Fargo: Republican House incumbent Kim Koppelman and his newcomer running mate Austen Schauer face Democratic challengers Dianne Hyndman and Landis Larson. In the Senate race Republican incumbent Judy Lee faces Democrat Carrie Leopold.
  • District 17 In Grand Forks: Senator Ray Holmberg, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and perhaps one of the most powerful Republicans in the Legislature, is facing a challenge from Phyllis Johnson. Holmberg outperformed Johnson by 392 votes, but you can bet Demcorats will be gunning for Holmberg.
  • District 27 In Fargo: Republican House incumbents Tom Beadle and Randy Boehning versus Democratic challengers Ruth Buffalo and Jon Kitzman. Republican Kristin Roers, a newcomer, is running for the Senate against Quinn Garrick.