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Democratic candidate for North Dakota's U.S. Senate seat Heidi Heitkamp speaks to supporters early Wednesday morning in Bismarck.

Heitkamp aside, ND Dems are struggling

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FARGO -- He was a political underdog running against a popular office holder for the North Dakota governor's office.

His party was weak and had occupied the coveted governor's mansion for just one term in the preceding three decades.

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But he managed to score a victory, and the political fortunes of his party have steadily grown stronger since, to the detriment of the rival party.

The year was 1992 -- a watershed in North Dakota politics -- and the successful gubernatorial candidate was Republican Ed Schafer.

Schafer went on to serve two terms, and since has been followed by two fellow Republicans, John Hoeven and Jack Dalrymple, who was elected to his first full term on Tuesday.

Except for Heidi Heitkamp's narrow victory over Rick Berg in the U.S. Senate race, North Dakota Democrats had little to celebrate in Tuesday's election as they viewed the state's political landscape.

The Republicans' lock on the governor's office for the past two decades is an important ingredient in the party's hold on power, including two of the state's three seats in Washington, all elected state executive offices and supermajority control of the Legislature.

That provides a roster of candidates who already have won statewide office that are well positioned to run for higher office.

"They don't just have a bench, they have a building -- the state capitol," Democrat Dan Hannaher said, referring to the slate of GOP officeholders in North Dakota.

Tables once turned

Schafer confronted a much different political landscape, however, when he was first elected governor two decades ago.

"The Republican party was very non-influential when I was elected," he said, adding that he was only the fourth elected GOP executive officeholder in the Capitol when he was elected in 1992.

Also, the Democrats controlled the North Dakota Senate, although the Republicans held the House of Representatives.

"We didn't have a Republican apparatus to turn to in the 1992 governor's race, so we built our own," Schafer said.

Once in office, he traveled the state and met with Republicans he thought would be good candidates, encouraging them to run for legislative and other posts, as well as offering support in their campaigns.

No other political post commands the statewide visibility and influence the governor's office provides, crucial in building a state political party, activists in both parties agree.

The Democrats, whose last governor was George A. Sinner, who was Schafer's predecessor, for most of the past two decades have held the congressional delegation -- "Team North Dakota," consisting of former Sen. Byron Dorgan, former Rep. Earl Pomeroy and Sen. Kent Conrad, who is retiring early next year.

The North Dakota Democrats' clout in Washington, however, didn't readily transfer into political gain for state office seekers.

The Democrats' stars in Washington did what they could to support the state party, but the increasing obligations that came with their senior assignments in Congress made it more difficult over time, said Jim Fuglie, a former Democratic-NPL Party chairman.

As the party holding the governor's office, "You get to put your platform forward at the expense of the other party," he said. "Ed Schafer did that in his first term and into his second term in a masterful way."

Schafer's chief aim, he said, was to place North Dakota's congressional delegation in the GOP column.

"It took me 18 or 20 years," Schafer said.

Of course, the obstacle that prevented the delegation's complete turnover to Republican red was Heitkamp, who beat most prognosticators' odds by defeating Berg and keeping Conrad's seat -- once Quentin Burdick's -- in the Democratic column.

Advantages are few

North Dakota's robust economy -- with personal income growth above the national average and the nation's lowest unemployment rate -- makes it difficult for the party out of power to make headway.

Fairly or unfairly, the incumbent party gets to claim credit for the success, or blame for any shortcomings.

Schafer concedes that he had economic and political tailwinds working in his favor when he captured the governor's office in 1992, beating Democrat Nick Spaeth, a popular state attorney general.

The farm crisis hit the North Dakota economy hard in the early 1980s, a blow that was followed by the severe drought of 1988 and 1989.

But the economy actually had started to head south in 1979, Schafer said, when an oil boom went bust. State government had grown too fat during the 1970s boom, which ultimately led to a backlash by voters.

Three tax increases supported by Sinner and the Legislature -- including the Republican House -- were referred to voters in 1989. Voters rejected all three tax hikes -- a sentiment that Schafer would tap in 1992 when he ran as a businessman who would make government more lean and efficient.

How can Heitkamp -- acknowledged by both parties to have a likeable personality that connects well with voters -- help the Democrats rebuild from her seat in Washington?

During the campaign, she ran on themes that combined pro-energy development, light environmental regulation and a willingness to reach across the political aisle to solve problems, including the deficit and debt.

"We campaigned on getting along and getting things done," she told reporters after meeting with supporters in a rally Wednesday in Fargo. She said she looks forward to working with Hoeven, whom she considers a moderate.

The message she heard from voters was, "Stop all the bickering and sit down at the table."

In essence, her approach assumes good government -- solving key problems -- will pay political dividends.

Western challenge

But Heitkamp's narrow victory also spells out the challenge for Democrats: Her strength came in the east, especially the Red River Valley -- and particularly Cass County, which she carried by almost 9,900 votes in a race she won by fewer than 3,000.

West of Jamestown, Fuglie said, the Democrats have struggled to win races. That's a growing problem in a state where most of the population growth is coming from the booming western Oil Patch.

Carol Siegert, a longtime Democratic activist from Hunter in northern Cass County, helped George A. Sinner win the governor's office in 1984 -- a year when winning the Democratic primary was more difficult than winning the general election, she said.

"With me, it's one word -- grassroots," she added, offering her view of the path the Democrats must follow to rebuild. That means working district by district to recruit and advance good candidates and build an organization, she said.

One of four new Democratic candidates to win legislative seats in Cass County was George B. Sinner, the former governor's son. The younger Sinner said his focus will be working to solve problems in Bismarck, while working as a banker. He said he does not have his eye on higher office.

Waiting for a schism

For Democrats, one scenario for helping to reverse their political fortunes also could have an echo of 1992.

That year, the Democrats had an internal feud, with rival candidates vying in a primary battle for the nod to run for governor -- a division Fuglie said weakened the party and took years to heal.

Some Democrats have speculated that a battle for the Republican gubernatorial endorsement could erupt whenever Dalrymple decides to retire.

Until then, the Democrats undoubtedly will try in 2014 to unseat Kevin Cramer, who bucked the Republican Party by running in the primary against the GOP's endorsed candidate and won Berg's congressional seat in Tuesday's election.

Although a loyal Republican, Schafer can sympathize with the underdog political party. It's harder to recruit good candidates when the party is weak, he said.

"When you're in a super minority," Schafer said, "it's a tough deal."

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