Superintendent Kirsten Baesler Stuck Between Hatred And Ambivalence Heading Into 2016

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With the 2015 legislative session behind us the rumor mills are grinding away about who will and will not be running in 2016.

State Auditor Bob Peterson is expected to announce his retirement later this year, and there will be many retirements in the state Legislature particularly among Republican lawmakers, but perhaps the biggest buzz surrounds whether or not Superintendent Kirsten Baesler will run for a second term.

“I have no idea,” is the most common response I hear from Republican insiders when I ask them about whether or not Baesler is in for another term. That’s not the response you’d expect to hear about a relatively young, first-term candidate who, in the 2012 cycle, easily beat out challengers for the NDGOP endorsement and handily won election on the statewide ballot.

But it’s been a rocky first term for Baesler.

Her personal life became the fodder for statewide headlines when her toxic relationship with her fiance, former Bismarck teacher Todd Tschosik, led to her arrest for alleged domestic violence earlier this year. The charges against Baesler were dropped, as were charges against Tschosik for a previous incident of violence during what was for Baesler a business trip to Florida in July 2014, but there’s no question that Baesler was left wounded by the affair.

“There are two types of people on this issue,” he told me. “People who hate Common Core and people who don’t care.”

But Baesler’s personal life isn’t the only area where things have been a mess. The superintendent declared herself an outspoken proponent of the controversial Common Core education standards and went to war with a faction of the conservative base over it during the 2015 legislative session.

Baesler and her legislative allies were ultimately successful. They beat back legislation to withdraw the state from participation in the standards and also held off an effort to make it easier for parents to keep their kids out of Common Core testing.

But then as North Dakota students were to begin their inaugural Common Core testing all hell broke loose. Schools around the state have experienced delays and disruptions due to technical glitches with the test.

“How can people trust the writers of the programs’ content when the architects of the testing plan screwed up so badly?” asks the Grand Forks Herald in an editorial today.

The Herald also made a thinly-veiled call for Baesler to accept some responsibility for the disaster writing that “somebody in state government signed off on a project that clearly wasn’t ready to move into classrooms.”

That puts Baesler in an awkward position.

I was speaking to a statewide elected Republican recently who shared with me a funny quip about Common Core. “There are two types of people on this issue,” he told me. “People who hate Common Core and people who don’t care.”

That has the ring of truth to it to me, and it perfectly describes Baesler’s predicament. As she enters the 2016 election cycle with a cloud of personal drama over her head she has, on her right flank, a faction outspoken and motivated enemies of Common Core which has been the signature policy of her first term in office.

Baesler may get some support from the pro-Common Core activists – notably the Chamber of Commerce which should never be underestimated as a force in state politics – but I wonder how that sort of support will translate into votes. As the previously alluded to maxim dictates, those who don’t hate Common Core are largely ambivalent.

The heavily-contested roll out of Common Core in North Dakota was botched on Baesler’s watch. Fairly or not she’ll get the blame for that. It seems very likely that Baesler will face not only a motivated challenge for the NDGOP nomination in 2016, if she chooses to run, but also a serious challenger from Democrats as well who no doubt see blood in the water and an opportunity to break the Republican stranglehold on statewide offices.

Quietly, many Republicans are telling me that they hope Baesler doesn’t run again.

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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