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North Dakota GOP eyes law change allowing parties to avoid bitter primary fights

Fargo entrepreneur Doug Burgum asks for the NDGOP endorsement for governor during the during the NDGOP convention Saturday, April 2, 2016 in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

BISMARCK -- Leaders of the North Dakota Republican Party will consider endorsing a law change next week that would allow the state's political parties to avoid bitter intraparty primary election battles.

The GOP State Committee is scheduled to vote on the resolution Thursday, Dec. 13, a few weeks after its rules committee approved it. John Trandem, chairman of the party's rules committee, said the proposed change would give parties more flexibility on how they nominate their candidates for the general election ballot, allowing them to use a caucus or convention of its members rather than a primary election open to all of the state's voters.

Trandem said current state law compels political parties to "essentially confer voting rights to anyone, regardless of their political affiliation." He argued party nominations should be an organization's private function, unlike a general election open to the public.

"It's become more of an issue in recent years when we see more people employing the primary option when they fail to garner the support of the district or the state party at the state convention," he said. "If you want to build a party, you have to make party exercises consequential and exclusive."

The proposal comes after some successful primary election challenges for the highest offices in the state.

In the 2012 Republican primary for Congress, Sen.-elect Kevin Cramer defeated the party's endorsed candidate, Brian Kalk. Likewise, Doug Burgum beat the GOP-backed candidate for governor, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, during the 2016 primary.

Cramer on Friday called the idea "lousy" and said primaries help test a candidate's "electability." He said a better solution would be for North Dakota to ditch its status as the only state without voter registration.

"I like the primary process. It's inclusive," he said. "Rather than trying to stop this movement of more people wanting to be involved in that process, invite them into the process by having voter registration."

Burgum said he supports open primaries because they help encourage competition.

But Trandem said the contests can harm the parties, citing the 1992 primary for governor that caused divisions among Democrats. More recently, Tom Campbell almost ran against GOP-endorsed Kelly Armstrong for Congress earlier this year but backed down.

"They would have spent millions of dollars fighting with each other, and that doesn't benefit anyone," Trandem said. "Contests are great. But contests should be resolved internally."

Trandem said he was unsure what the proposal's fate would be in the Legislature. Coincidentally, it would require Burgum's signature to become law.

State Republican Party Chairman Rick Berg declined to weigh in on the proposal Friday afternoon.

"It's kind of like the Legislature. People can bring any issue they want up and ... be debated," he said.

North Dakota Democratic-NPL Chairman Warren Larson didn't return a message Friday.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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