GRAND FORKS — Big doings in North Dakota politics the last fortnight have left a couple of interesting questions, one in each party.
We’ll start with the Republicans. For them the question is, who’s after Jeff Delzer?
Delzer, one of the most senior and arguably the most powerful member of the North Dakota House of Representatives, came in last in a four-way race for endorsement at the District 8 Republican convention. The district is a big one. You can see the Capitol building from its southern edge just north of Bismarck and you’d have to drive at least an hour to reach its other boundaries.
A farmer and a math whiz, Delzer has represented the district most of the last three decades, although he sat out a session in the early 1990s. He’s been speaker of the House and he currently chairs the House Appropriations Committee. That means just about everything in the state budget needs his OK.
There’s a short list of suspects in answer to our question.
The first piece of circumstantial evidence points to Gov. Doug Burgum, who feuded publicly with Delzer during the last session. Another tidbit involves a so-called “push poll” the week ahead of the district convention. This is a new and insidious campaign tactic in which unsuspecting respondents are led to the answers the pollster wants. Such a poll was used against Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem in the 2016 gubernatorial primary. Burgum won that election.
But coincidence is not proof.
Responsibility may lie among legislators, an aspiring Appropriations Committee chair, for example, or an aspiring majority leader. Rep. Mike Nathe of Bismarck might be interested in either role. An Appropriations Committee member, he lost a bid for majority leader in the 2019 session when Chet Pollert of Carrington, promised to keep Delzer as head of the committee. Leader Pollert showed up to nominate Delzer at his district convention, apparently cementing the alliance.
The coal lobby is another possibility. Landowner rights have emerged as a contentious issue in siting wind farms, and coal has an interest in limiting wind power – and a stack of grievances about tax breaks. The connection here is that landowner rights are a key element of the appeal of the Bastiat Caucus, which forms the outermost feathers of the right-leaning wing of Republicans in the House.
Bastiats have candidates for both legislative and statewide races. The caucus organizer and its leader, Rep. Rick Becker, was a candidate for governor in 2016. In 2019, he suggested he might try to form the official minority caucus in the House, pushing aside the Democrats – an indication of his ambition and his appreciation of unorthodox tactics. His ambitions have only grown; he’s now pushing an initiated measure to abolish property taxes.
All four candidates for the district’s two seats in the state House have said they’ll go to the primary election, which is set for June 9, so it’s up to the voters to cull the herd. Two candidates will advance to the general election.
For Democrats, the question appears to be, what do results of the “fire house caucuses” held a week ago tell us about the current state of the party? Here’s the answer: Nothing definitive, even though bloggers who delight in painting the party as dangerous left-leaning found proof in the results that the party is way out of touch with North Dakotans.
For their part, some Democrats complained that progressives were disenfranchised in a way that diminished support for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Of course, this is one of the Sanders' consistent gripes. There’s something to the disenfranchisement argument, but not what Sanders supporters assert. Rather, the caucus structure probably hurt Joe Biden.
The caucuses drew more people than anybody expected, but not in a representative way. Those who showed up were likely disproportionately Sanders supporters. The caucuses were held in only 14 locations, all urban by North Dakota standards, where voters are both younger and more “progressive” than the rest of the state. Despite recent losses in statewide races, there are still Democrats in rural areas, but they might not have been inclined to drive a couple of hours to vote. As the more moderate candidate, Biden has a natural appeal to this constituency. He also has a continuing following in the state. He was the keynote speaker at the state convention in 2018, and he returned to campaign for Heidi Heitkamp, who lost her seat in the Senate to Cramer.
Biden didn’t do any campaigning in North Dakota in advance of the caucuses, and he didn’t have any visible organization. The opposite was true for Sanders. He wanted to win North Dakota and he put effort and organization into it. The upshot is that the results don’t tell us much about the current number of Democrats in North Dakota nor their state of mind.
Still, this year’s caucuses were a big improvement over the “crowd-together-in-a-corner” approach that Democrats had taken. That’s the system that Iowa Democrats embraced and North Dakota Democrats wisely avoided.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.