GRAND FORKS — When it comes to politics, crystal balls aren’t especially reliable. This is true of the scientific as well as the speculative ones. The scientific crystal balls, national polling outfits, missed the mark in 2020.
So, maybe it’s time for some speculation.
This is a kind of follow-up to a story by Adam Willis that appeared in Forum Communications Company outlets on Dec. 5. He talked to me, and I got some pushback for my comments, specifically about the state’s sitting U.S. senators. So, let’s start there.
John Hoeven faces re-election in 2022, when he will be 65. He became the state’s senior senator during his first term in office, a remarkable turn of events in a state known for rewarding Senate seniority. Given this history and the state’s overwhelmingly Republican electorate, Hoeven probably could continue in the Senate for as long as he wanted. The question is whether he wants to continue in the Senate, and that might hinge on election results in Georgia, where two Senate seats will be filled in runoff elections on Jan. 5. At the moment, both races are apparent toss-ups, and that leaves partisan control of the Senate in the balance. If Republicans win one seat, they’re the majority in the Senate. If Democrats win both seats, the chamber is equally divided and the new vice president, now Sen. Kamala Harris, becomes the tie breaker and control shifts to Democrats.
That result might make the Senate a less inviting place for Hoeven, but the opposite result would elevate both his status and his effectiveness. Indications are that he’s been pretty effective; citing just two recent examples, he helped engineer a jumpstart for the Garrison Diversion project (renamed and repurposed, but the same general idea anyway) and he secured funding for unmanned aerial systems research in the state. Both were announced within the last fortnight. A narrow Republican majority gives Hoeven room to negotiate, to wheedle and to win deals in the long tradition of North Dakota pork barreling. Democratic control might make that harder. In the past, the earmarks bridged partisan divides and created space for compromise. Tight margins can create the same results.
The case for the state’s second senator, Kevin Cramer, still in his first term, is a little more complicated. He’s been a Trump loyalist, often his surrogate and never a critic in any meaningful way. This secures his base in the state, but it could also make him more vulnerable than Hoeven. Cramer has been attracted to the cameras, and occasional ad libs get him into trouble.
His history of maverick challenges to the state party establishment could be problematic, too. The Republican primary has become the focus of state politics, just as it was until 1956, when the Nonpartisan League merged with the Democratic Party, a move that made it consequential for several decades. That time is passed, leaving Democrats effectively stranded. At some point, Democrats might figure out that the way to elect more moderate politicians is to vote in Republican primaries. The primary is “open;” no one asks about political affiliation. That could make a hard right candidate such as Cramer vulnerable in a primary election, just as “regular Republicans” have been vulnerable to challenges from the right. Whether that would ever happen is problematic, but it’s certainly possible. Cramer’s seat is up in 2024, by which time national politics may be quite different than they are today — or not, depending on Trump’s behavior after the inauguration.
Gov. Doug Burgum is secure through 2024, and he could be a candidate for reelection. Or not. He’s disclaimed any interest in running for the Senate, and that can probably be accepted as his real feeling. Intentions change, of course, and “senator” could be an attractive title for someone who’s demonstrated an enormous ego.
Should Burgum step away from the governorship, Kelly Armstrong, the state’s only member of the U.S. House of Representatives, might be a candidate. His principal interest heretofore has been legislative, and he’s attracted a fair amount of attention in his first term.
All of this elevates the importance and the potential interest in the election four years from now. Of course, you don’t need a crystal ball to predict that. On the whole, however, this doesn’t seem to be a time of turmoil in North Dakota politics. No crystal ball needed for that conclusion, either.
In another column, we’ll bring out the crystal ball and have a look at the Republican bench, whereon future candidates might be found.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.