North Dakota Democrats Aren’t Going to Win Until They Stop Preaching to the Choir

In a recent article about Democratic gubernatorial candidate Marvin Nelson’s fundraising woes (he’s still about $940 short of getting his campaign Cadillac fixed) the candidate himself complained the time he has to spend on the phone flogging supporters for money.

But the way he phrased his lament struck me as interesting. “Frankly, there isn’t 3 or 4 hours every day to sit on the phone and raise money” Nelson said. “At some point, I’m hoping people will notice and they will step up and I don’t have to spend all that time on the phone talking to the people who are already going to vote for me.”

That made me think of something which happened while I was having a conversation with Nelson’s opponent, Doug Burgum, recently.

Burgum was in Minot for the North Dakota State Fair and asked to meet me for lunch. I set it up for Charlie’s Cafe on Main Street (my favorite place to dine), and while we were chatting a man who recognized Burgum walked up to our table. He described himself as a retired professor from Minot State University who had “crossed the aisle” to vote for Burgum in the primary. He said he’d never voted for a Republican before but was voting for Burgum (that got him a sincere thanks from the candidate).

[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]…North Dakota’s Democrats seem intent on appealing only to a small faction of far-left liberals in the Democratic base who have little in common with the average North Dakota voter. They’re preaching to the choir, in other words, while letting the Republicans run away with one election after another by taking a more pragmatic approach.[/mks_pullquote]

I’ve pointed out the problems with North Dakota’s open primary system before. It gives our state’s private political parties zero say over who gets a voice in selecting their candidates. I have this silly idea in my head that if you want to help pick a political party’s candidates you should be a member of that party.

But setting aside the issues surrounding open primaries, the Democrats should be worried about how much crossover appeal North Dakota’s Republicans have. And how it seems to be growing what with the appeal of a candidate like Burgum.

While Democrats have worked for years to paint the NDGOP as hidebound extremists the Republicans have been building and maintaining a super-majority in state elected office. And they’ve been doing it significant numbers of Democrats across the partisan divide.

Burgum has significant crossover appeal among Democrats, but he’s hardly the first Republican elected on the statewide ballot to accomplish this feat. Governor-turned-U.S. Senator John Hoeven has consistently won statewide elections margin so wide it seemed clear, from the electoral math, that he was not only cleaning up the Republican vote but splitting the Democratic vote in half too. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, though vanquished in the Republican primary by Burgum, has for years been elected to his seat with Hoeven-esque majorities.

Current Governor Jack Dalrymple has also enjoyed crossover appeal, though not to the level of Burgum or Hoeven. I’d argue that Congressman Kevin Cramer, back when he held a seat on the Public Service Commission, also had vote totals indicative of crossover appeal (less so now that he’s moved to Congress).

I’m sure we could cite other examples, too, but consider the point made.

Back to Nelson’s comments, I think we need to remember that Republicans haven’t gained a stranglehold on elected office in this state because North Dakota is overwhelmingly conservative (it’s not) or because of dirty electoral tricks (give me a break) but because they’ve found a way to campaign govern in a manner that’s appealing (or, at least, acceptable) not just to most of the people who consider themselves Republicans but to a lot of people who consider themselves Democrats too.

Plus a lot of independents, too.

Meanwhile, North Dakota’s Democrats seem intent on appealing only to a small faction of far-left liberals in the Democratic base who have little in common with the average North Dakota voter. There may be no surer sign of this than the way Senator Heidi Heitkamp, the only Democrat to win an election on North Dakota’s statewide ballot since 2008, came under fire from a far-left faction of her party’s delegation to the Democratic National Convention.

They’re preaching to the choir, these Democrats, while letting the Republicans run away with one election after another by taking a more pragmatic approach.

Nelson seems frustrated with this reality. He has, unwittingly I think, put his finger on the genesis of his party’s generation-long electoral malaise.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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