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A sea of red: Surprise results buck trends for Grand Forks legislators

GRAND FORKS -- Lois Delmore has seen voters head to the polls plenty of times as a state legislator, but this year was different. "It was a very unusual election cycle," said Delmore, a Democratic representative serving central Grand Forks since ...

GRAND FORKS - Lois Delmore has seen voters head to the polls plenty of times as a state legislator, but this year was different.

“It was a very unusual election cycle,” said Delmore, a Democratic representative serving central Grand Forks since the mid-1990s. She pointed out not only Donald Trump’s surprise victory, but Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ insurgent primary victories. “I don’t think anybody can ignore that.”

But Delmore spoke in particular about the way some of those issues trickled down ballot. Democrats suffered notable defeats in a long line of Grand Forks-area races this year, leaving the city with just two of its 12 legislators as Democrats.

“A lot of people wanted something different, they didn’t want the status quo, and I think that carried all the way down to the local election,” she said.

The gains Republicans made in Grand Forks leave the city with its largest Republican majority in at least two and a half decades, according to a review of election data going back to 1992. All four senators are in the GOP, as are six of eight House representatives.

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That’s a gain of five seats for Republicans, including two senators and three representatives. And now, understanding why that sudden shift rightward took place - and what happens next - requires parsing a little history.

Districts 17 and 43, which today account for central and southern Grand Forks, have been dependably red for at least 24 years. Both have had a Republican senator for almost that entire stretch, and neither ever had more than one Democratic House representative during that time period.

This year’s phenomenon - and all of the city’s state-level elections - happened elsewhere.

Current boundaries for districts 18 and 42 include downtown-to-northern Grand Forks and the UND area, respectively. Both have been Democratic strongholds in recent years, with District 42 leaning blue all the way back to 2008, and District 18 almost entirely Democratic going back to at least 1992.

But this year, surprise upsets booted incumbent Democrats from office in both districts, including Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider and state Rep. Kylie Oversen, the chairwoman of the state party, and state Sen. Connie Triplett, who had held her seat for 12 years.

Legislators in both parties said the city’s races, now and historically, have not hinged on shifting district boundaries, which are re-drawn decennially. In the immediate aftermath of the election, many Democrats were quick to point out the down-ballot effect of the presidential race. In District 18, Donald Trump won with 49 percent of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 39 percent, despite Barack Obama walloping Mitt Romney by more than 11 percentage points in the area in 2012. A similar trend, though with closer margins, won out in District 42.

Though Schneider gave challenging Republican Curt Kreun credit for winning the race, he pointed out that those numbers are a hard trend to work against.

“As a down-ballot candidate, you’re really ice skating uphill when the top of the ticket is faring so poorly,” he said Nov. 9.

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District 18 But In District 18 - the downtown area, the Riverside neighborhood and an area north of Gateway Drive - there were multiple factors in play that went beyond the presidential election.

State Rep. Eliot Glassheim, a Democrat who had served the area for decades, declined to run for re-election and pursued a U.S. Senate seat, putting Democrats down a beloved incumbent they’d had since the 1992 election. Fellow Democratic representative Marie Strinden also declined to run again.

Dane Ferguson, GOP chairman for District 18, said the the party’s message and even the candidates themselves catered to working class voters. To hear Ferguson tell it, that meant strategies that might be more apt to hold blue collar appeal, like talking less about property tax relief and more about home affordability.

“It just so happened that it also aligned with the national political movement as well,” Ferguson said, pointing out that working-class votes swung the presidential election in places like Pennsylvania and Michigan.

It all coincided with the first full complement of Republicans - a senate and two house candidates - to run in the area in more than 20 years.

State Rep. Cory Mock, who has previously represented District 42 but won this month’s election in District 18, pointed up the ticket for much of his explanation.

“There was a lack of inspiration and motivation from both sides, I think particularly strong on the Democratic side,” he said.

District 42 District 42, which includes UND and nearby neighborhoods, has been volatile over the past two decades. It was dependably a GOP space during the 1990s and much of the 2000s, but gained its first Democratic majority since 1992 alongside Obama’s first presidential bid. In 2012, it turned entirely blue.

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Curt Kreun, a former state legislator who won the district’s senate seat Nov. 8, said his ticket was aided by the range of ages and identities it brought to the table, from UND student Jake Blum to his own ability to speak directly to older constituents. Blum, who has earned a House seat, also pointed out what he saw as voters’ rejection of “identity politics and social justice-type issues” that he said characterized Democrats’ national efforts this year, and he said worked its way to the state level, as well.

Mock responded to Blum by pointing out that the much of what the state party does often has been “overshadowed” by the national party, though he did say Democrats could have talked more about economic issues.

The district itself has been the most volatile over the past four years, switching far more regularly from red to blue and back again. State Rep. Kylie Oversen, who lost her election in District 42, responded to questions on that volatility by pointing out the district’s makeup.

“The voting demographic is constantly changing in District 42,” Oversen said, mentioning college students and young families in particular. “We literally can’t reach half of the voters when we’re knocking on doors because they live in dorms and apartments”

Defending gains Democratic losses are reflective of a statewide trend - where Democrats already were a minority in the state legislature, their share of seats has gotten even smaller.

“Statewide, we’re simply having conversations with our candidates and district volunteers and supporters to talk about what they think worked well and didn't’ work well,” said Oversen, who serves as the state Democratic-NPL chairwoman. “2018 is going to be an entirely different year than what we’re seeing right now. It’s going to be a midterm, and it’s going to be a midterm with a Republican president.”

Both Kreun and Blum pointed out there’s going to be work to do to keep their gains in Grand Forks, too.

“We’re going to have to represent these diverse groups and make sure that we listen and work toward the needs of our district,” Kreun said. “It’s been an up-and-down district, and we’re going to do the best we can. I’m sure there’ll be some changes in the district as we go through, and we’ll have to adapt to those changes.”

And as for Delmore - after such a surprising election - he said she doesn’t have any concerns about working with Republicans in the coming session.

“I’m a moderate Democrat who’s always worked with moderate Republicans,” she said. “For me, it’s always worked out well. I don’t play partisan politics...I think reaching across the aisle to our moderate colleagues in the other party is a significant success I’ve had in passing legislation.”

Related Topics: CORY MOCK
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