State treasurer has not been a highly sought position in state government. Nor has the job been a reliable stepping stone to higher office. This year’s campaign for the Republican nomination for the office is therefore unusual, but it is explainable.
The treasurer’s race has become the most visible sign of a deepening divide in the North Dakota Republican Party. The precise nature of the divide, that is to say, who is on which side, is not entirely settled. Yet prominent political figures have invested heavily in the contest. Individual Republicans will have to take sides. The rest of us get to watch — and assess the consequences.
There are two candidates for the Republican nomination, which will be decided at the primary election, scheduled for June 9 but already underway, since most counties won’t have actual physical voting places. Instead, voting will be done by mail. Mail-in ballots must be postmarked by June 8, no later, to be counted.
The campaign is spirited, and the spending is considerable. Monday’s mail brought two fliers from Thomas Beadle, one of the contenders. Late last week, fliers supporting Beadle and his opponent, Dan Johnston, arrived. Both Beadle and Johnston are members of the state House of Representatives, Johnston from District 24, centered on Valley City, and Beadle from District 27, which takes in much of south Fargo.
Beadle’s fliers feature endorsements from Gov. Doug Burgum, whose Dakota Leadership political action committee has invested in Beadle’s campaign. Burgum’s endorsement and photographs are prominent in Beadle’s literature.
Johnston’s flier includes not just one but two enthusiastic endorsements from the incumbent state treasurer, Kelly Schmidt. The money behind the campaign is not quite so obvious. U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer has made a significant contribution.
So, one way to see the contest is as a rehearsal for a U.S. Senate campaign in 2024, when Cramer’s current term in the Senate and Burgum’s in the governorship will expire. It’s worth noting here that Cramer and Burgum both challenged “regular” Republican candidates and won nomination in party primaries, Cramer for the U.S. House in 2012 and Burgum in 2016.
Their disregard of party procedures led to the current spate of challenges of established candidates. The obvious case in point is in District 8, north of Bismarck, where Jeff Delzer, a longtime member of the state House of Representatives, a former speaker and the chair of the Appropriations Committee is fighting to hold on to his seat against insurgents endorsed by the convention — and backed by Burgum
This illustrates another way that light bends when one looks through the prism of the primary battles. Burgum is clearly trying to establish hegemony over the party and get his way in the Legislature. Students of North Dakota political history have been digging for precedents. Alexander McKenzie, known to history as the “Boss of North Dakota,” is one. The analogy is apt, except that McKenzie held only one elective office, sheriff of Burleigh County. Still he directed the state’s affairs in the first decades of statehood.
The closer analog is “Wild Bill” Langer, who split with the Nonpartisan League, a left-leaning movement that nevertheless entered its candidates in the Republican primaries, then wrested control of the organization and made it his own political machine. In the 1930s, North Dakota politics focused on the Langer machine and the Republican Organizing Committee, the more traditional, business-oriented, main street Republicans. These factions entered slates of candidates against each other in primary elections, which were decisive in the state’s politics — just as they have become now, with the decline of the Democratic Party in the state. Burgum seems to be reading that playbook. Burgum is a dominant figure in state politics, able to put up his own wealth and to add to the ante by tapping his contacts in the business world, where he has been a successful player.
Turn the prism slightly and the light shines on the so-called “Bastiat Caucus,” a right-leaning group of legislators, mostly House members, led by Rep. Rick Becker of Bismarck. It’s named for a French economist, the father of “opportunity theory,” who wanted government out of the way most of the time.
The ideological divide among Republicans is clear and it seems to be deepening. That doesn’t explain Burgum’s attack on Delzer, which appears to be more personal than ideological. Delzer is a tight-fisted and eagle-eyed money manager in position to obstruct a governor who wants to “reinvent government.”
The word “reinvent” appears prominently in Beadle’s campaign material, almost as prominently as Burgum’s own endorsement. But Beadle fliers deliver a somewhat more subtle message, that he is the candidate of the Republican establishment. We learn, for example, that his dog is named “Eisenhower.” Beadle is a bit more circumspect about his family credentials; he is the grandson of Earl Strinden, longtime legislator from Grand Forks, leader of Republicans in the state House of Representatives and a U.S. Senate candidate in 1988.
Thus, a relatively obscure office becomes the focus of political realignment in North Dakota..
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.