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Jacobs: The four political ‘parties’ of North Dakota

GRAND FORKS -- North Dakota is a Republican state. There's no arguing that point.But that doesn't tell us much about the Republican Party or politics in North Dakota.The fact is, there are at least four groups -- not quite parties, perhaps, but a...

1404025+Mike Jacobs.jpg
Mike Jacobs

GRAND FORKS - North Dakota is a Republican state. There’s no arguing that point.
But that doesn’t tell us much about the Republican Party or politics in North Dakota.
The fact is, there are at least four groups - not quite parties, perhaps, but associations of like-minded people with political ambitions.
There’d be a fifth, if we included independents who might be interested in politics but don’t have any particular point of view.
Yes, I am counting the Democrats as one of the groups, even though Democrats make up a small share of the electorate at the moment.
Members of the other groups are all Republicans, members of one organization but with significant political differences.
These are becoming much clearer as this unusual election year rolls along.
There is a ruling Republican Party, of course. For ease of explanation, we’ll label this one “the establishment party.”
There’s at least one group of Republicans to the political right of this one. It defies easy labels, though, because it is an amalgam of interests. These include ideological libertarians and the so-called “values Republicans,” the group the national media likes to call evangelicals.
This might amount to two parties, since libertarians reject government involvement in individual decision making at the same time that they want strict controls on spending.
The values Republicans are perfectly happy with intrusive government, as long as it enforces their values.
These interests tend to get lumped together at the conservative edge of the spectrum.
Both have been active in Republican politics. In the past several state conventions, they’ve made up about 20 percent of the delegates.
This year’s candidate is Rep. Rick Becker from Bismarck. He comes to politics with a strong libertarian bent, but he’s moved closer to the values Republicans. He’s also moved farther from the governing Republicans, criticizing budget decisions made in the last Legislature, for example.
This combo could attract a somewhat bigger group of delegates than in earlier conventions.
It doesn’t seem likely to threaten the establishment party, though. That party has been in power for a long time - long enough that its predispositions are well known.
It is a party favorable to economic growth and averse to intrusive regulation. It’s also a go-along party as far as the values party is concerned. Republican legislators have repeatedly conceded these points - opposition to abortion, opposition to gay marriage, opposition to legal protection for gay, lesbian and transgendered North Dakotans.
Its gubernatorial candidate is Wayne Stenehjem, who’s been the attorney general since 2000. He’s probably more liberal than the party he has come to represent. For example, he’s said he’s OK with gay marriage. But he’s defended very restrictive abortion laws - because duty demands it, he says. He’s also challenged environmental regulations, even though he made a modest effort to protect some unique places from oil development.
In other words, he’s a comfortable accommodationist.
It’s pretty clear that the establishment party is satisfied with him overall. A huge majority of legislators signed on to his campaign - 81 out of 103.
That probably means he’ll be the endorsee at the party convention.
It doesn’t elect him, though.
A third Republican group has entered the contest. So far, this is a personal party organized around Doug Burgum. He built a software company, sold it to Microsoft for more than a billion bucks and has re-invested in downtown Fargo.
Burgum is close to the establishment party, having co-chaired election efforts for a couple of its governors. But he’s not close enough to smother his ambition.
The convention will likely endorse Stenehjem, but Burgum has said he’ll take the race to the primary election. That will be held June 14 - not a date most people associate with political decision-making.
In order to win, Burgum will have to appeal to young voters, many of whom are new to the state. He seems well positioned to do that as a tech savvy guy who’s not encumbered by the values issues and who hasn’t - so far at least - had to accommodate them.
In some ways, North Dakota history is repeating itself, recalling the days of the Nonpartisan League.
The League’s contribution to the state’s history was twofold. First, it opened space to the left of the Republican Party, and it produced a succession of governors and a distinctive legislative program. In its heyday, the League ran its candidate in the Republican primary, and in those days the governorship was often decided in primary elections - as it will almost certainly be this year.
Because the fourth of the state’s political groups has no candidate.
Sarah Vogel seemed ready. She’s a former agriculture commissioner and a member of a prominent League and Democratic family.
But she has said she’s not a candidate.
Her decision emphasizes the status of the state’s Democratic Party as fourth among the four political groupings. It’s pretty much a shell of the party that grew from the merger of the League and the Democrats. That party managed to elect three governors and several members of Congress. It controlled most of the statewide offices in the 1980s, and it briefly had legislative majorities.
No longer. Now the Democratic Party struggles to find candidates.
It’s clear that now more than ever, North Dakota is a Republican state. What’s not clear is what kind of Republican state it really is.
Jacobs is retired as editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald, which is part of Forum News Service. Readers can reach him at mjacobs@gfherald.com .

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