Whoa: Bill Would Change How North Dakota Replaces Senate Vacancy

heidi heitkamp

One persistent rumor in North Dakota political circles concerns the likelihood that US Senator Heidi Heitkamp might run for governor in 2016.

I first wrote about possibility back in 2013, and it has to be intriguing from the perspective of Democrats.

The liberals have a paucity of experienced candidates to run for higher office. Aside from Heitkamp, the last Democrat to win on the statewide ballot was Earl Pomeroy in 2008, and he’s now a highly-paid lobbyist unlikely to run for office in the state again. If Heitkamp were to run for governor and win (not a certain outcome given her oh-so-narrow margin of victory in the 2012 Senate race which she won by a margin representing less than 1 percent of the vote), she would get to appoint her replacement.

Currently the 17th Amendment requires that Senators be popularly elected (originally they were appointed by the state governments), but allows the governors to appoint replacements in accordance with such laws as the legislature may create.

Currently, North Dakota has separate laws addressing vacancies in the House and the Senate (the latter last occurred when former Governor George Sinner appointed Senator Quentin Burdick’s wife Jocelyn Burdick to succeed him after his death in 1992).

Here’s the existing statute for replacing a Senator, which allows for the governor to appoint a temporary replacement until the next statewide balloting or until a special election can be held:


This is obviously a benefit for Democrats. Should Heitkamp run in 2016 and win, she would appoint a replacement who would then have the advantage of incumbency against any Republican challenger in the subsequent election to confirm the appointment.

That is an Democrats desperately need. But that may change after this legislative session.

I have obtained an advance copy of legislation (see below) which would repeal the above section of law and combine the replacement process for Senators with a reformed replacement process for Representatives which eschews appointments for immediate special elections. It was drafted for Rep. Roscoe Streyle of Minot but hasn’t yet been filed for consideration during the session next year.

Rep. Streyle tells me it should be filed at the beginning of the session.

Here’s the pertinent excerpt.


This would obviously change the calculus behind any decision Heitkamp would make to run in 2016. If she chose to run for governor and won it would be likely that Democrats, forced to run a candidate in a special election without the advantage of first having that candidate appointed, would simply be trading control of a Senate seat to control of the governor’s office.

If Heitkamp lost she would, of course, retain her Senate seat which she could run for again in 2018 (though she’d be carrying a deep electoral wound into that cycle).

Democrats still may like those odds. Even if they couldn’t hold the Senate seat, Heitkamp positioned in the governor’s office (a position she’s long coveted) would leave them in a better position to move their party out of the wilderness.

Of course, all politics aside, I think it makes sense to hold special elections instead of appointments for these national offices. While I’d prefer the 17th amendment repeal, if we are to popularly elect Senators I’d rather that be a uniform standard.

Expect Democrats to oppose this bill, but as a matter of retail politics I think it’s going to be hard for them to argue against the idea that voters, and not a politician, should decide who gets to be Senator even on a temporary basis.