Lawmakers Send Bill Requiring Special Elections For US Senate Vacancies To Governor


The rumor in North Dakota political circles is that U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp wants to return to North Dakota to run for governor in 2016. Confirming how much truth in that rumor is the furious opposition to HB1181 from Democrats in the North Dakota legislature. That bill, introduced by Rep. Roscoe Streyle (R-Minot) would change the way the state fills vacancies in the U.S. Senate from appointments by the Governor (which would have allowed Heitkamp to appoint her own replacement) to a special election.

The bill passed the Senate today, but not without a protracted floor fight in which Democrats offered contradictory amendments to the bill in a vain attempt to prove a political point.

Honestly, the Senate floor fight over this bill was almost as humorous as the one on the House floor.

“It’s good policy; some see it as politics,” bill carrier Senator Dick Dever (R-Bismarck) said of the legislation. “If it wasn’t for the timing of it hardly any of us would oppose it.” I think he’s right. Were it not for Heitkamp possibly running in 2016 I doubt Democrats would have made much of a fuss at all.

But fuss they did.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]”It’s good policy; some see it as politics,” bill carrier Senator Dick Dever (R-Bismarck) said of the legislation. “If it wasn’t for the timing of it hardly any of us would oppose it.”[/mks_pullquote]

First Senator George Sinner (D-Fargo) offered a floor amendment which would have allowed the Governor to make a temporary Senate appointment until a special election could be held. Not even Democrats took that amendment very seriously as they didn’t even bother to ask for a roll call vote on it, allowing it to fail on a voice vote.

Next Senator Tim Mathern (D-Fargo) offered a floor amendment which would have required that vacancies in all statewide offices be filled by a special election. “I would urge that we adopt this amendment so that we treat all offices the same,” he said in support of it.

That’s been a consistent talking point about HB1181 since it was introduced. Democrats have accused Republicans of being hypocrites because they want special elections for the U.S. Senate seat but not statewide office. Of course, those offices aren’t the same. It’s appropriate for the Governor, the head of North Dakota’s executive branch of government, to appointment replacements for vacancies in the executive branch. It’s more problematic for the Governor to appoint replacements to the federal legislative branch.

Anyway, Mathern’s amendment failed 18-29 (Democrats remembered to ask for a verification vote that time), and the whole bill went on to pass 27-20 (24 votes were needed).

The question now is if Governor Jack Dalrymple will sign it. Lawmakers tell me they’re fairly certain he will.

As for the political fallout, Heitkamp has refused to say whether or not she’s running in 2016, but I have to think that if the Governor signs this legislation it’s less likely that she will.

If Heitkamp can’t appoint her own replacement to the Senate it’s more than likely, given the absence of any credible candidates for that office on the Democrat bench, that she’d be sacrificing a Democrat Senate seat for the governorship (presuming she could win, which seems like a long shot given who she’s probably up against).

Are national Democrats, upon whom North Dakota Democrats are very dependent for monetary support, going to look favorably on that exchange?

Not likely.

Heitkamp may run anyway, of course, but with this bill in place there’s more risk and less reward.