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Jacobs: Election yawns? Check out legislative races

GRAND FORKSWayne Stenehjem, North Dakota attorney general, announced his campaign for governor Tuesday.This is an anti-climax. He had already announced that he was going to announce.So, this is another stop in the curious dance that candidates an...

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs

GRAND FORKS
Wayne Stenehjem, North Dakota attorney general, announced his campaign for governor Tuesday.
This is an anti-climax. He had already announced that he was going to announce.
So, this is another stop in the curious dance that candidates and the media and the voters undertake each election cycle.
If you think that the music is louder and the jig livelier this time than in previous election cycles, you would be right, for three reasons.
One is that this is the first election cycle since 2000 in which there is no incumbent running. This means opportunity.
Another is that the stakes in North Dakota politics have changed. It used to be that elections were about candidates; these days, elections are just as often about ideologies. That changes the character of campaigns.
Another is that the timetable has been moved up a bit. It used to be that state party conventions took place in June ahead of primary elections in September. Today’s schedule has primaries in June and conventions in early April.
One consequence of the new schedule is that legislative candidates have to make their intentions known and get their campaigns underway earlier than used to be the case.
The implications for politics today - Nov. 24, 2015 - are these:
We will hear the announcement of a second Republican contender. Stenehjem joins Rep. Rick Becker of Bismarck in the contest for the Republican endorsement. Becker presents himself as the more conservative candidate, especially on so-called “values” issues.
Stenehjem has worked to establish his own record in this area - one that agitates Republican activists even if most North Dakotans regard these issues as settled policy. Thus we find Attorney General Stenehjem petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his defense of a law that restricts abortions after six weeks, when a heartbeat can first be heard.
If it stands, this would be the most restrictive law about abortion in the country. The idea has been rejected by lower courts, based on precedents set by the big bench itself.
Of course, Stenehjem has proven himself an activist in opposing “federal mandates,” whether they come from courts, Congress or federal agencies. He’s got several suits under way challenging promulgations of various federal agencies, most prominently the Environmental Protection Agency.
Becker is a plastic surgeon and not an attorney, so he hasn’t been able to establish this kind of record. Still, he presents himself as more orthodox on life issues even than Stenehjem.
And tighter with the purse strings, too.
The bulk of voters may ignore all this.
Party activists don’t, though, and success at party conventions or in primary elections can turn on small differences.
Just such a thing occurred in District 10, the state’s northeastern most legislative district, composed of Pembina and western Walsh counties. Eight years ago, the incumbent senator, Curtis Olafson, proved insufficiently righteous about life issues.
He was beaten in a Republican primary - by Joe Miller, who is Becker’s northeastern North Dakota campaign coordinator. Evidently, Miller feels more comfortable in such a position than he does as a candidate. Embarrassing brushes with the law have left him less attractive as a candidate than he was earlier. He’s not running for re-election.
Olafson’s been smarting about his defeat. He’s said he’ll be a candidate for his seat again this year.
He has competition. Janne Myrdal is in the race.
Myrdal is a familiar name; Janne is the daughter-in-law of Rosemarie Myrdal, who was lieutenant governor in the administration of Ed Schafer, who is soon to become interim president of UND.
The younger Myrdal has made her own political reputation as an activist for anti-abortion issues. She directed the campaign for Measure 1 in the 2014 election. That was the so-called “personhood amendment.”
The amendment was defeated, and it failed to win a majority even in District 10. That doesn’t necessarily predict the outcome of a contest between Olafson and Myrdal. More important is the fervor that each candidate can bring to the contest.
And the position of the rest of the field.
There may be an opportunity for a new candidate in the district; some names have been mentioned. Moderates, or those who want the focus on other issues, evidently have been recruiting.
In a conversation last week, Myrdal conceded that she’d lost the personhood issue. She’s moved on, she said, aiming now at public education. This suggests that Common Core - which survived a challenge from conservative legislators last session - may be an issue in legislative contests this year.
This isn’t the only legislative race that bears watching, of course.
Democrats have targeted other lawmakers. State Sen. Tim Flakol in Fargo is one. Republicans have their eyes on some Democratic officeholders, too. State Sen. George B. Sinner, son of a former governor, is one. He represents a south Fargo district.
Few contests bring the personal animosity, issues and opportunity that District 10’s contest holds, though.
If you’re bored by gubernatorial politics, tune into these legislative contests. There you’ll find politics at the rawest, most basic level.
Jacobs is retired as editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald, which is a part of Forum News Service. You can reach him at mjacobs@gfherald.com .

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