With the 2015 legislative session in the books we’re heading into the doldrums of North Dakota politics. There isn’t going to be a lot of activity until this fall when candidates begin to emerge for the 2016 election year.
Until then, it’s all speculation about who may be running and, just as importantly (particularly Republicans this cycle) who is not running. So let me run down for you some of the things I’m hearing.
North Dakota is about as solid a Republican state as you can get, but 2016 may be a challenging cycle for a couple of reasons.
First, on the statewide ballot one NDGOP incumbent will be entering the cycle looking extremely vulnerable. Superintendent Kirsten Baesler, who was first elected in 2012 after receiving a Republican endorsement, not only has the very-motivated anti-Common Core activists on her right flank (Baesler has been an outspoken proponent of the controversial education standards), but drama in her personal life made big headlines earlier this year. Baesler was arrested and booked, though not ultimately convicted, for allegedly assaulting her former fiance Todd Tschosik. The arrest uncovered what was a very ugly relationship between Baesler and the Bismarck teacher which also included an arrest for Tschosik for allegedly assaulting Baesler on a taxpayer-funded trip to Florida (Tschosik also wasn’t convicted).
That’s a lot for any candidate to contend with, let alone a candidate running for her first re-election. Baesler won with 55 percent of the vote over her opponent Tracy Potter (44 percent of the vote) in 2012, so that’s a pretty solid margin, but you can bet that Democrats will put a strong candidate up against Baesler in 2016.
There will also at least one vacancy on the statewide ballot. Auditor Bob Peterson is rumored to be stepping down after his current term in office.
Peterson has been in office since 1997. Before that his father, also Bob Peterson, held that office starting in 1973. Yes, by the end of the current Peterson’s current term, North Dakota will have had a State Auditor named Bob Peterson for 44 years.
Interestingly, no Democrat has been elected to the Auditor’s seat in North Dakota since 1895. No joke.
Republicans are also facing a lot of retirements in the legislature. It doesn’t seem likely that there will be a lot of turnover in the state Senate, but in the state House I count as many as a dozen pending retirements among lawmakers. That’s a lot of open seats up for grabs, although many of them are in solidly Republican districts.
Still, that means Republicans are likely in need of more candidate recruitment this cycle than any time in recent memory.
Can Democrats capitalize? The other Republicans who are up on the statewide ballot in 2016 will be U.S. Senator John Hoeven, U.S. Representative Kevin Cramer, Governor Jack Dalrymple, Treasurer Kelly Schmidt, Insurance Commissioner Adam Hamm, and Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak.
Hoeven is definitely running again, and short of some catastrophic scandal he’ll mop the floor with whoever Democrats put up against him (if anybody). Cramer has now won on the statewide ballot twice by solid margins and he seems dug in for the long haul. Dalrymple is definitely running again, and is a shoo-in for re-election, though there’s some question as to whether or not Lt. Governor Drew Wrigley will be on the ticket with him.
It’s no secret that Wrigley has aspirations to be Governor himself one day. In fact, that was likely his motivation in signing up to be Lt. Governor under Dalrymple in 2010. But Dalrymple keeps running for re-election, and what initially looked to be a two-to-six year term as Lt. Governor is now looking like a decade.
Fedorchak had her appointment to the PSC confirmed by voters in 2014, but her term is up in 2016 so she must run again to keep it (she was appointed by Dalrymple to replace Cramer after the 2012 election). She won with more than 65 percent of the vote in 2014 so I don’t see any storm clouds on her horizon. Hamm has also been telling people that he’s in for a third term. He won re-election in 2012 with more than 65 percent of the vote.
Schmidt also told me this morning that she’s in for a fourth term. She last won with 65 percent of the vote in 2012.
For North Dakota Democrats, opportunity is one thing. Cashing in on that opportunity is quite another. While it’s clear there are some openings for victory in 2016, what with Baesler weakened by scandal and faction in her own party and resignations moving incumbents off the ballot, Democrats still need to field strong candidates.
The question is…who?
A Democrat source I spoke to recently said many in the party feel they should focus their attention on the state legislature. They haven’t had a majority in the state Senate since 1995, or a majority in the state House since 1984. In fact, since statehood in 1889 Democrats have controlled the state House for a grand total of just four years, and the state Senate for just ten years (though, admittedly, political party definitions get a little fuzzy in the early years of the state).
Can they turn that record around? They certainly seem to have an opportunity in the state House, what with the aforementioned resignations, but even if every single one of those Republicans does retire (a strong possibility) and Democrats then flip every single one of those seats to one of their own candidates (unlikely) the House would still have a 59-35 Republican majority.
But it may be smart for Democrats to play the long game. Their biggest problem is a paucity of experienced, credible candidates to run for office. They already have a crop of young, aggressive liberals serving in the House and Senate minority (you can tell by how shrill the messaging from legislative Democrats has gotten), and eventually those lawmakers may be able to translate that experience into credible campaigns for higher office.
My Democrat source thinks his party will focus on the legislature so much that they may actually leave a few Republicans on the statewide ticket without a challenger. Of course, I’m not sure the Democrats know just how many opportunities they may have on the statewide ballot what with Baesler and the possible resignations of two incumbents.
But, again, opportunities are one thing. Taking advantage of those opportunities is another. While Republicans have a deep bench of potential candidates, Democrats have very few.
The only potential candidate from the left I’ve heard any rumors about for statewide office is Jasper Schneider who announced his resignation from his appointed position at the USDA’s Rural Development Office earlier this year, but I’ve been told Schneider wants to run for U.S. House against Kevin Cramer.
That seems like a bad career move. Cramer, at this point, is an entrenched incumbent with a talent for retail politics. Schneider has a short political resume and has been off the political grid with the USDA since he failed to beat Hamm for Insurance Commissioner in 2008.
I’ve got to think there’s a better opportunity in 2016 for Schneider if he’s going to run, which he probably is.
Another recognizable name for Democrats is former U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon who also stepped down earlier this year. But he’s already headed straight into private practice, establishing a North Dakota presence for a national law firm, and I’m told he has little interest in campaigning at least in the immediate future.
The only other organized political force in the state outside of the Republicans and Democrats is the Libertarians, but I’m probably not using the word “force” right. The Libertarians maintain a consistent ballot presence, and have done well in making some headlines during the campaigns. Jack Seaman in particular was a solid candidate for them in the U.S. House race last cycle, but he still managed to pull in less than 6 percent of the vote.
Their biggest vote-getter in 2016 was Anthony Mangnall who got over 6 percent of the vote in the Tax Commission race, though that probably had more to do with Republican Ryan Rauschenberger spending a month of campaign time in rehab (he still won!) than anything else. That was a weird race.
I’ve never understood why Libertarians are so focused on statewide races. I’ve long thought that they’d get more traction if they ran their candidates for local offices first, building experience and name recognition they could then take to races for offices higher up the ladder. That may actually be happening for them. The winner of a special election race for Fargo City Commission was Tony Gehrig who has been identified as a libertarian (the Commission itself is officially non-partisan).
But Gehrig himself doesn’t like being labeled. “I tried hard not to identify with a political party,” he told me when I asked about the Libertarians getting excited about his victory. “Honesly. I think it detracts from the grass roots campaign that we ran. I took no money, no mailing lists, no names from any party. I think it is obvious given my positions that I am pro-liberty, and a fiscal conservative. But when people read a label they automatically feel like they know what you stand for and I don’t think that has a place in local elections.”
But it’s interesting that the Libertarians are at least excited about Gehrig’s victory. That may indicate they’re re-thinking their electoral strategy.
The North Dakota LP has little chance of getting one of their candidates into statewide office, or even the Legislature, any time soon. But maybe they can follow Gehrig’s lead into getting some influence in local offices.