North Dakota Isn't Governed By Conservatives


There’s a common misconception about North Dakota, which is that this is a conservative state. And it is a conservative state, in a lot of ways, despite a strong streak of what is often called “prairie populism.” That North Dakotans like to think of themselves as conservative is born out by the fact that they vote, overwhelmingly, for Republicans.

But those Republicans don’t often like to govern in accordance with a conservative platform, which is no doubt why the NDGOP gives such short shrift to its platform. On the NDGOP website, the section for the platform doesn’t contain the document that was put in front of the last statewide convention. Instead it has some other language, and the “I’m a Republican because” statement.

One normally thinks of political parties as a group of people who develop a set of ideas, and then work to get elected on those ideas. Today’s NDGOP is an organization that just worries about getting elected, and to hell with the ideas.

To demonstrate how true this is in practice, consider the selection of interim legislative leadership. I wrote previously that many House and Senate Republicans were chagrined at the selection of Grand Forks Senator Ray Holmberg as chairman of Legislative Management, a Republican who we here at SAB rated as voting more liberally than most Senate Democrats.

In today’s Grand Forks Herald my post about Senator Holmberg’s selection is quoted, with Holmberg himself responding by saying he doesn’t care about political labels:

Conservative blogger Rob Port ( reported Holmberg’s election under a headline that read in part, “House Republicans Not Happy.”

Port wrote that House Republicans, whom he did not name, had told him that “Democrats teamed up with Senate Republicans” to choose Holmberg over Carlson.

Holmberg’s election reflects “the trouble house members face trying to push a conservative agenda,” one House Republican told him. “Republicans have super-majorities (in both the state House and Senate), but the libs win.”

Port also quoted a Senate Republican: “We might as well let the Democrats set the agenda.” …

“We thought it was important that the 17 members have some options,” Holmberg said. “Sen. Wardner said he was not interested in the job. He said he was busy enough.”

He described Carlson as “very bright, very articulate and very driven” and their relationship as “professional.” He said the former chairman “made good staff decisions” while leading the Legislative Council and that he and Carlson share “an intention to keep partisanship out” of the interim work.

“I did not run because I felt he had screwed up on the management of the council,” he said.

Holmberg said political labels, such as conservative and liberal, get in the way at the Legislature, and he resists applying one to himself.

“In this day and age you eschew labels as much as possible,” he said. “I think I represent the people of District 17 who sent me to Bismarck. If I run again in 2014, they can decide again whether I do.”

Senator Holmberg has gotten himself elected for many years, and of course he can point to that track record as evidence of his success. But Senator Holmberg as associates himself with a party that is seen as conservative. Saying you’re a Republican and governing like a Democrat is like selling someone a Chevy with a Ford logo on it.

And it’s worth keeping in mind that Holmberg owes his interim leadership position to Democrats:

When the 17 committee members gathered just after the 2013 session ended this month, Holmberg received the votes of three House Democrats, three Senate Democrats and three Senate Republicans.

Carlson, R-Fargo, who had been interim chairman since 2007, received the votes of the committee’s six Republican House members but no votes from Democrats or Senate Republicans. Two GOP senators voted for Sen. Dwight Cook, R-Mandan.

The response to all this from many on the left, and in the state media, will be to suggest that conservatives are on the political fringes. But I’m not sure how true that is. The legislature is not very popular in North Dakota these days, and setting the abortion issue aside that’s not because the legislature set a conservative agenda on taxes and spending. North Dakotans are upset about too much spending, and too little tax relief.

At some point, they’re going to start recognizing the disconnect between the limited government message of the Republican party and the big-government leadership of Republicans elected in this state. And on that day, the Republican super majority will start to crumble.