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Port: Data show the NDGOP has an extremism problem that's distorting its candidate selection process

Data from this month's midterm election vote show the delegates showing up for the North Dakota Republican Party's candidate selection process are significantly out of touch with what North Dakota voters want from those candidates.

State Rep. Rick Becker delivers a speech to delegates in support of his campaign for the U.S. Senate at the NDGOP's 2022 state convention in Bismarck, North Dakota, April 2, 2022.
State Rep. Rick Becker delivers a speech to delegates in support of his campaign for the U.S. Senate at the NDGOP's 2022 state convention in Bismarck, North Dakota, April 2, 2022.
Photo by Kyle Martin
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MINOT, N.D. — The NDGOP has a big problem with its candidate selection process.

The people participating in it are not remotely representative of North Dakota's electorate.

The heated U.S. Senate race, in which MAGA-world darling Rick Becker took on long-time Senate incumbent John Hoeven in a three-way race with Democratic-NPL candidate Katrina Christiansen, exposes just how true this is.

I have the data, but let's set the stage first.

There were times, in the weeks leading up to Election Day earlier this month, that friends and correspondents, people who are generally astute political observers, expressed concern to me that state Rep. Rick Becker might be able to defeat incumbent Sen. John Hoeven.

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I never bought it. I had polling data leaked to me by interests outside of Hoeven's campaign showing the incumbent with strong and consistent leads that, ultimately, aligned with the shellacking Becker received on Election Day.

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Despite the noise he made, Becker was never really in that race. Yet I could understand why observers, without all the information I had available to me, might have had some doubts. Becker, after all, is a prolific Facebooker, and his followers, who align closely with the most extreme elements of disgraced former President Donald Trump's movement, are very visible, and very loud.

And everyone who came to me with concerns was remembering how close Becker's supporters made the endorsement competition at the NDGOP state convention. At a heavily attended convention, with thousands of delegates from around the state present, Hoeven beat Becker, but only by less than 200 votes .

The problem, as I noted at the time , is that there's a disconnect between the NDGOP's convention process, through which the party endorses candidates for both local and statewide office, and views of the North Dakota electorate.

For those of you who aren't political nerds, remember that party conventions are first held in each legislative district. At those meetings, various candidates compete for the party's endorsement in legislative races. Those local conventions also elect delegates to attend the state convention where endorsements are given for statewide candidates.

Just to make things more confusing, none of these endorsements really matter. The candidates representing each party are actually chosen on the June ballot, though the party's endorsement counts for a lot in those competitions.

Is the whole thing kind of redundant? Yes, but that's the way it's done.

Becker's movement, organized around his personal ambitions, and the Bastiat Caucus of Trump-aligned Republicans in the Legislature he founded, has been very successful in skewing these local conventions in their favor. With the help of Minot-based organizer Jared Hendrix, the Bastiats get their people out for their slate of candidates, both for legislative offices and as delegates for the state convention.

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The influence of these efforts is palpable, and it's skewing the NDGOP away from what rank-and-file North Dakota voters want.

The Senate race illustrates this point perfectly.

over_hoeven.jpeg
A delegate at the North Dakota Republican Party state convention holds up a sign advocating against Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., at the Bismarck Event Center on Saturday, April 2, 2022.
Kyle Martin / The Forum

Again, the contest between Becker and Hoeven at the state convention in the spring was tight, with Hoeven winning by just 197 votes. But in the general election, things weren't close at all. Becker didn't win a single county, statewide, and in almost all of them, he came in third, behind even a lackluster Democratic candidate.

That's a stark contrast.

To illustrate just how far off the NDGOP's state convention vote was from the actual general election vote, take a look at this chart below which shows, by legislative district, the percentage difference in the vote for Hoeven from the convention to the general election.

The yellow districts are places where support for Hoeven, among NDGOP convention delegates, was lower than what we saw in the general election (votes for Christiansen were excluded).

In District 1, in the Williston area, for example, Hoeven got 81.8% of the vote in the general election, compared to Becker, and 81.8% of the delegate vote at the convention. There was no change.

In District 2, however, Hoeven received more than 66% less support from delegates at the convention than he did from voters in the general election, again compared to Becker.

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As you can see, Hoeven underperformed his general election vote percentage in most of the legislative districts at the state convention.

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It would have been a better comparison if Becker and Hoeven had faced off on the Republican ballot in the June primary, but Becker, who had initially promised to abide by the convention vote, skipped the primary and went straight to the general.

So the only data we have is the general election vote.

Still, imperfect though it may be, the results are startling. It's to be expected that the activists who show up at a political party's convention might skew a bit more right (or left, in the case of the Democrats) than the general election. But this level of disconnect?

102722.N.FF.SENATEDEBATE
Democrat Katrina Christiansen, Independent Rick Becker and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., prepare to debate at the Prairie Public Television studios in downtown Fargo on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022.
David Samson/Forum Communications Co.

It's a problem for the NDGOP.

The business of a political party is electing candidates. If delegates choosing the candidates are this far out of touch with the general electorate, the party is going to have problems winning elections.

Some of this is enabled by the utter collapse of the Democratic-NPL as an opposition party for the NDGOP. Few Republicans in North Dakota fear losing an election to a Democrat. The NDGOP's convention process endorsed many poor candidates for the legislature earlier this year, but given that the Democrats left most of the state's legislative races without a candidate , it was a moot point.

What the NDGOP must fear in this moment, far more than Democrats, is the internal struggle between Becker's extremist movement and the traditional conservative Republicans — candidates and party activists alike — who have guided the NDGOP to three decades of dominance in state politics.

Thirty years in power isn't something that just happens. It's the result of many Republican leaders, over many years, serving the public faithfully and diligently.

Becker and his disciples would have the NDGOP break with that tradition. If they're successful in their efforts to take over the party, it could be the opening Democrats need to regain some semblance of relevance in state politics.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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