Does The North Dakota Farm Bureau Have The Horsepower To Pull Off A Convention Upset?


The race for the NDGOP endorsement for Agriculture Commissioner took a turn for the ugly ahead of the party’s state convention in Minot this weekend. Judy Estenson, a candidate backed by the North Dakota Farm Bureau, has squared off against incumbent Doug Goehring.

A company working on behalf of the Farm Bureau got caught this week making robocalls, which are illegal in North Dakota. The company copped to it, and agreed to a fine, while the Farm Bureau has disavowed all knowledge of the tactic.

But Goehring’s campaign and supporters used the occasion to fire some shots at the Farm Bureau. “These calls are just another example of the mean spirited and personal attacks North Dakota Farm Bureau has employed in their campaign to unseat Commissioner Goehring because of their policy differences,” said Sen. Jerry Klein, a state legislator and Goehring campaign spokesperson. “Worse yet, the Farm Bureau has now resorted to illegal campaign tactics in their slash and burn campaign.”

On SAB today Rep. Mike Brandburg, who describes himself as a lifelong Farm Bureau member, criticizes the organization’s leadership for launching this campaign against Goehring. “I cannot begin to express how disappointed I am in the negative, mean-spirited and personal attacks the Estenson Campaign and a small group of Farm Bureau insiders led by Eric Aasmundstad have launched against North Dakota Commissioner of Agriculture Doug Goehring,” he writes.

I’ve spoken to Estenson, and many of her supporters both inside the Farm Bureau and without. They believe strongly that Goehring has been a poor leader, and to some degree they have a point. Goehring himself has admitted to inappropriate behavior with staff. You also have to give Estenson some credit for making the challenge. Agree with her motives or not, intraparty competition is healthy for democracy, and it takes a lot of courage to run against an incumbent who got nearly 70 percent of the vote the last time he was elected.

The question is, does the North Dakota Farm Bureau have the clout to upset a sitting Republican incumbent at the NDGOP convention?

That will be the most interesting storyline of the convention this weekend.

One factor running against the Farm Bureau is the fact that Democrats have put a serious challenger into the race in the person of former legislator and gubernatorial candidate Ryan Taylor. Taylor, who had said in late 2013 that he wouldn’t be running in 2014, was drawn into the race after Esteneson and the Farm Bureau launched their challenge to Goehring.

How favorable will NDGOP delegates be toward an untested challenger like Estenson, who has never run for public office before, pitted against a strong Democrat challenger? And the stakes are pretty high. The Commissioner of Agriculture has a seat on the North Dakota Industrial Commission which, among other things, regulates oil and gas development in the state. Democrats have made it clear that they will campaign on oil and gas impacts, and they desperately want that seat.

This will be a test of the Farm Bureau’s political clout, and it could backfire fantastically. It would be bad enough for their candidate to lose at the convention, but perhaps even worse for them if their candidate wins but then ultimately loses to Taylor in the general election, ending the Republican monopoly on statewide offices and giving Democrats a platform for anti-oil development policy maneuvering.

The Farm Bureau will be blamed by Republicans for letting a Democrat win. The recrimination would no doubt be just as fierce if Goehring emerges from the state convention the victor, but politically wounded to the point where Taylor picks him off.

Keep in mind that Goehring has said he will run in the June primary for the party’s nomination even if he loses the party’s endorsement this weekend.

Another factor is that a lot of the Republicans I’ve spoken to are bewildered at the Farm Bureau’s turn on Goehring. I have to admit that I’ve had a hard time understanding it as well. While some of the Farm Bureau’s complaints seem valid, or at least understandable, it’s hard to see how they justify this bold step. Maybe they’re seeing something I’m not, or maybe I’m too far removed from agriculture policy to see the problem.

This is a big gamble for the Farm Bureau, which has grown in influence in recent years, and we won’t necessarily know if that gamble will pay off even if Estenson wins this weekend.