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National politics stengthens ND GOP majorities in House, Senate

Steve Vetter, left, and Scott Meyer, center, celebrate with Ben Olson after winning the District 18 House and Senate races, respectively, Tuesday night, Nov. 8, 2016. They joined other Republicans at a victory party at the Hilton Garden Inn in Grand Forks. Photo by Eric Hylden/Forum News Service1 / 4
Rep. Kylie Oversen, D-Grand Forks, talks with Becky Ronkowski Tuesday evening, Nov. 8, 2016, at the Democratic watch party at the Ramada in Grand Forks. Jesse Trelstad/Forum News Service2 / 4
Becky Ronkowski, chairwoman of the Grand Forks Democrats, watches the the broadcast sitting on the floor at the Ramada during the Democratic party Tuesday evening, Nov. 8, 2016. Photo by Jesse Trelstad/Forum News Service 3 / 4
From left to right, Republicans Jake Blum, Scott Meyer, Steve Vetter, Curt Kreun and Emily O'Brien were elected to the North Dakota Legislature Tuesday night, Nov. 8, 2016. Photo by Eric Hylden/Forum News Service4 / 4

FARGO — Republicans strengthened their two-thirds majorities in the North Dakota House and Senate on Election Day, knocking out both chambers' minority leaders and the state Democratic-NPL Party's chairwoman.

The GOP held a 71-23 majority in the House and a 32-15 advantage in the Senate heading into Tuesday, Nov. 8. Elections were held in even-numbered districts, each of which has one senator and two representatives.

Republicans appeared to grow their Senate majority to 38-9. They won seven seats from Democrats, including the District 42 seat held by Minority Leader Mac Schneider of Grand Forks, who lost to former state Rep. Curt Kreun. A recount was possible in Fargo's District 46, where preliminary results showed Republican Jim Roers beating Sen. George Sinner by 36 votes.

Democrats unseated one Republican senator, District 44 Sen. Tim Flakoll of Fargo, who had served in the Senate since 1998.

Republicans took 11 seats from House Democrats—including those held by District 42 Rep. Kylie Oversen of Grand Forks, the state Dem-NPL chairwoman, and Minority Leader Kenton Onstad of Parshall—but lost one seat with the defeat of Rep. Blair Thoreson, R-Fargo. That made for an overall GOP gain of 10 seats, increasing their House majority to 81-13.

"These things ebb and flow," Schneider said Wednesday. "This is a pretty low ebb, but we understand these things are cyclical."

National politics

North Dakota Democratic leaders pointed to the surprising presidential race, which saw Republican Donald Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton, as one factor that affected local races. Clinton garnered just 27 percent of the vote in North Dakota to Trump's 63 percent.

"I think that the biggest factor is what happened nationally deeply impacted our state," Oversen said. "We don't have many of them, but we do have some deep blue districts, and we even lost those. When things like that happen you recognize that it was out of your control and you regroup and you look toward the future."

Schneider also cited a "national mood" that came with the presidential race. Trump beat Clinton in Districts 18, 20 and 42, all of which are represented exclusively by Democrats in the Grand Forks region but saw Republican challengers win Tuesday.

Trump defeated Clinton by 10 percentage points in District 18 and by 9 percentage points in District 42. President Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney in both of those districts in 2012.

"As a down-ballot candidate, you're really ice skating uphill when the top of the ticket is faring so poorly," said Schneider, who also credited Kreun for his victory.

Republicans Jake Blum and Emily O'Brien won House seats in District 42, ousting Oversen and denying Democratic newcomer Grant Hauschild a seat. Corey Mock, the assistant minority leader in the House, won a seat in Grand Forks' District 18. Republican Scott Meyer defeated Democratic Sen. Connie Triplett in that district, and Republican Steve Vetter won a House seat there over Kyle Thorson.

The presidential race seemed to be an indicator elsewhere in North Dakota, as well. Trump defeated Clinton in Fargo's District 16, where Democratic Sen. Tyler Axness lost his seat, as did Democratic Rep. Ben Hanson. Obama won that district in 2012.

Meanwhile, District 44 was one of four North Dakota legislative districts that went for Clinton Tuesday. It's also where Flakoll narrowly lost to Democrat Merrill Piepkorn in that state Senate race.

But Mike Jacobs, the former publisher of the Herald who now writes a political column, said Tuesday's results were about more than just one election. He said the long-term economic changes have eroded the voting population for the Democratic Party in North Dakota, which he said was built on a coalition of rural and labor interests.

"There just aren't any Democrats left," Jacobs said.

To the future

Sinner said in a statement Tuesday night he would request a recount in his tight race against Roers for the Senate in Fargo's District 46. Secretary of State Al Jaeger said "an official determination of the results of the election" will be made when the state Canvassing Board meets Nov. 18. That determination "would then become the basis for the decision whether it was an automatic recount or within the request range," Jaeger said in an email.

Even if Sinner is successful after a recount, Democrats will slip further into the minority in the state Legislature. Oversen worried about a "lack of balance of ideas and perspectives at the table" as the lawmakers grapple with a downturn in state revenue next session, which begins in January.

"My hope, very sincerely, is that Republican leadership is willing to listen to the people of North Dakota and do what's best," she added. "It's easy when you have the numbers that they have right now to just go full force and go with your own agenda as a party and not consider what people are thinking or feeling. I just hope that they don't do that."

Kelly Armstrong, a state senator and chairman of the North Dakota Republican Party, didn't return a message seeking comment Wednesday.

Kreun acknowledged Republican lawmakers "have a huge responsibility right now to do the right thing as the majority." He said his focus on infrastructure issues resonated on the campaign trail.

"I really lean hard on infrastructure because that then sets the stage for industry and business to come," Kreun said.

Looking to the future, Schneider said a re-election bid from Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, the only North Dakota Democrat currently elected to a statewide position, could attract legislative candidates in two years. Heitkamp has not said publicly whether she will run again, and on Wednesday, a spokeswoman said "there will be more than enough time moving forward to focus on 2018."

What happens in Bismarck will also affect Democrats' chances in the future, Schneider said.

"To the extent that North Dakota continues to face budget challenges, it's all in (Republicans') hands at this point," he said. "If they govern well, I think it will be a challenge to find candidates. If they govern poorly, I don't think it will be much of a challenge at all."