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Jacobs: What happened to North Dakota Democrats?

GRAND FORKS -- On this day in 1992, Democrats controlled the governorship and nine of the 12 elected statewide offices. They were a solid presence in the Legislature and held all of the state's congressional seats.Today, there's only one Democrat...

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GRAND FORKS -- On this day in 1992, Democrats controlled the governorship and nine of the 12 elected statewide offices. They were a solid presence in the Legislature and held all of the state’s congressional seats.
Today, there’s only one Democrat elected statewide, U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. Democrats are an ineffective minority in both houses of the Legislature.
What happened?
The easy answer is that ideology did in the Democrats. Conservative blogger Rob Port recently denounced this ideology as “a shrill leftward cant.”
But the numbers tell a different story.
In six elections since 1992, the Democratic presidential candidate has won more votes in North Dakota than the party’s gubernatorial candidates. The exceptions are 2000, when Heitkamp was the candidate for governor, and 1992, when independent candidate Ross Perot took 23 percent of the vote for president.
In 2008, Barack Obama got almost 70,000 more votes than the Democratic gubernatorial candidate. Even in 2012, Obama outpolled the Democratic gubernatorial candidate by nearly 16,000 votes.
The slow death of the Democratic Party actually began in 1989, when the Legislature - with a majority of Democrats in the Senate - passed a tax program. Voters overwhelmingly rejected it in a referendum later that year.
This was a key issue in a bitter fight among Democrats in 1992. Their Senate leader won the party endorsement for governor, but their attorney general won the primary.
The Senate leader was a small-town banker. The attorney general was a big-city lawyer. So in that election, Democrats turned away from their traditional source of gubernatorial candidates, the Legislature, and alienated an important part of their traditional base of support, rural voters.
Republicans won the governorship that fall. And they’ve held it ever since.
Republicans took advantage of their hegemony. They stacked the deck in their favor in two ways. The first was to lengthen the terms of House members to four years rather than two, with House and Senate members from the same district elected in the same election year.
The second was to divide the state offices between ballots, with some elected in the presidential year and others in the off year. Both of these moves protected incumbents.
To their sorrow, Democrats didn’t mount effective opposition to either change. Both proposals were approved by voters as amendments to the state constitution.
A string of poor candidates added to the party’s woes. Since 1992, none of their gubernatorial candidates has broken 40 percent, except Heitkamp, who won 44 percent of the vote in 2000.
Still, Democrats held on to the federal offices - the U.S. Senate and House seats - until 2010, when they lost the House seat and one of the Senate seats.. This didn’t help them build their party, however. All of the federal officers were focused on their own re-election campaigns instead.
Without the governorship, Democrats couldn’t build bench strength.
Nor did they develop effective responses to the Republican Party line - that Democrats were out of touch and out of control.
Changes in the state’s media added to the problem. There was the rise of the blogosphere, for example, and there was Forum Communications’ insistence that all of its newspapers endorse the same statewide candidates - almost always Republicans.
These are what might be called “systemic causes” of the Democrats’ decline.
There also were demographic and economic causes.
The old Democratic alliance eroded as rural population declined. There were fewer farmers, and those who remained operated on a far larger scale. Sons who inherited family farms sometimes didn’t inherit family politics. For example, this year’s Republican convention in District 4, which includes most of Mountrail County - once one of the most Democratic in the state - was held in the farm home of the son of a former Democratic state legislator.
The oil boom hurt Democrats, too, but for a different reason. The state always has been on the margin of American politics, and statewide races seldom have attracted outside interest. The state just wasn’t that important in the scheme of things.
But it is crucially important to the oil business, and the oil business has invested in the state’s politics.
Democrats have no resources to counter that influence. This surely is a root cause of Sarah Vogel’s decision not to run for governor this year. Her exploratory fundraising efforts yielded less than $60,000, nowhere near enough to have an impact.
Of course there is an ideological element to the demise of the Democrats. This was most evident in the 2010 election, when Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., couldn’t withstand a barrage of criticism about his vote for Obamacare.
In 2012, Heitkamp presented herself as a more traditional Democrat, more tied to the old coalition. She worked very hard. And she defeated the Republican who had beaten Pomeroy.
There were lots of contributing factors - but the stronger candidate won, regardless of ideology.
That is the crux of it.
Democrats haven’t found strong candidates.
Again this year, their presidential candidate will likely outpoll their state ticket, if they mount one.
This suggests that there are Democrats out there - if the party can find a way to catch them.
Jacobs is retired as editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald, which is a part of Forum News Service. Readers can reach him at mjacobs@gfherald.com .

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