North Dakota Democrats got a shellacking on election night. On the statewide ballot only Ag Commission candidate Ryan Taylor got more than 40 percent of the vote. And despite a long campaign against the Republican-controlled Legislature, complete with accusations of too much focus on abortion and denying little kids their milk, the best Democrats were able to do was a one-seat pickup in the state Senate, a race that cost them more than most of their statewide races.
These election losses are nothing new for North Dakota Democrats. The liberals haven’t had a governor since 1992, a state Senate majority since 1994, or a state House majority since 1983. The last time a Democrat not named Heidi Heitkamp won on the statewide ballot was 2008 when then-Congressman Earl Pomeroy was re-elected.
That was more than six years ago now.
So it was interesting when Chris Berg asked former Senator Byron Dorgan about this issue on his 6:30 Point of View program last night. Dorgan is an elder statesman for North Dakota Democrats, and had a long history of electoral success in the state before he retired in 2010. You’d think he might have some insight into how Democrats could find their way out of the political wilderness.
Except he didn’t, really. Dorgan sort of blustered about how North Dakota has always been a “two party state” – though I think voting trends show North Dakotans don’t buy balance for balance’s sake – and then bizarrely started talking about the regulation of Wall Street.
Because the North Dakota Legislature regulates Wall Street?
I think Dorgan’s answer was telling. He probably doesn’t have a lot of good advice to offer today’s Democrats in North Dakota, because what made him successful prior to 2010 doesn’t work as well in today’s modern media environment.
There’s no question that to win in North Dakota, Democrats have to campaign to the right. Dorgan, Pomeroy, and former Senator Kent Conrad did it for a generation. Heidi Heitkamp’s run to the right is the only reason she pulled out a narrow victory in the 2012 Senate race.
But it’s hard for Democrats to pull that stunt off these days. Heitkamp won by a margin smaller than one percent of the vote not so much because of her merits but because of her opponent’s demerits. Then-Congressman Rick Berg ran what is widely seen as an atrociously incompetent campaign.
So Heitkamp won on a fluke. Pomeroy got a shellacking in 2010 because he voted with his party on Obamacare. Conrad and Dorgan, skeptical of re-election amid national tea party protests, decided not to run because in the modern media age playing “conservative Demcorat” back home while voting true-blue liberal in Washington DC simply wasn’t viable anymore.
From that, what advice could Dorgan possibly given today’s Democrats?