Will Stenehjem's Tepid Position On Abortion Issues Hurt His Political Chances?


Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem is running for governor, as we learned last night upon news that he’s formed a campaign committee. But his candidacy is being met with no small amount of skepticism from anti-abortion activists in the state. I have received countless messages from pro-life citizens, and members of pro-life organizations in the state, arguing that Stenehjem is not a pro-life candidate.

They’ve even predicted to me that Stenehjem wouldn’t appeal the state’s “heartbeat bill” – a ban on abortions after a baby’s heart beat can be detected, usually around six weeks – to the Supreme Court despite a circuit court panel seeming to call for just that. ““Good reasons exist,” the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in an opinion striking down North Dakota’s law, “for the Court to reevaluate its jurisprudence.”

“This case presents the question whether, given the current state of medical science, a state generally may prohibit physicians from aborting unborn children who posses detectable heartbeats.  The district court held that it may not,” the 8th Circuit continued. “Because Supreme Court precedent does not permit us to reach a contrary result, we affirm.”

So the case seems ripe for appeal, even in the opinion of an appeals court which struck down the law, but Stenehjem certainly seems reluctant in announcing that appeal today:

“It’s a longshot to appeal it, but still the (state) statute says the attorney general shall defend (the state’s laws), and I think most people understand that’s what we need to do,” he said.

In other words, Stenehjem is telling us that he’s appealing the law not because he believes in it but because it is the his duty, by dint of the office he currently holds, to do so.

This would seem to uphold the argument from pro-lifers that Stenehjem isn’t a very strong pro-life candidate.

Will that matter? Honestly, based on polling numbers Stenehjem has released, a term for him as governor seems inevitable at this point. Even Democrats seem to be acknowledging that. State Senator George Sinner, the U.S. House candidate for Democrats in 2014, is on the record saying his party may not even bother to endorse a candidate for governor in 2016. Privately Democrats are disputing Sinner’s comments, but saying only that they are trying to find a candidate to “rough Stenehjem up.”

Not win, mind you, but merely antagonize. Talk about setting the bar low.

Abortion is an issue Stenehjem is going to have to address in his campaign. The question is, will he feel the need to cater to the pro-life folks at all? While pro-life legislation has been very successful in the state Legislature, at the ballot box it hasn’t done as well. A pro-life ballot measure on the 2014 ballot got just over 35 percent of the vote, and of the few victories North Dakota Democrats could count in the 2014 elections, two were defeats of state Senator Margaret Sitte and state Rep. Bette Grande, two of the most ardent proponents of pro-life legislation in Bismarck.

If the pro-lifers challenge Stenehjem they may end up doing more damage to their reputation as political influencers than to his campaign.