With Senator Heidi Heitkamp’s loss in last week’s election, Republicans now hold every statewide elected office. Democrats have none. I don’t know if there’s ever been a time when one party held every state office. I doubt it. So what happened to Heidi?
Well, as the Beatles sang in their 1964 hit, “Money Can’t Buy Me Love,” Heidi’s millions of dollars collected in the wake of her vote against Trump Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh weren’t enough to sway North Dakota’s Republican bias, and she took a real thumping in her race against Congressman Kevin Cramer for the Senate.
Midterm elections are notorious for a big dropoff in voter numbers. Not this year. In 2014, the last midterm, when North Dakota’s population was peaking because of the oil boom, 255,000 voters showed up at the polls. This year, the total was 329,000, up almost 75,000 from 2014. Go figure.
In 2012, a presidential election year, when Heidi was elected, there were 326,000 voters—fewer than this year’s midterm. But Heidi’s vote total dropped by 17,000, from 161,000 in 2012 to 144,000 this year. And Kevin Cramer got 179,000, which was 21,000 more votes than Heidi’s opponent, Rick Berg, got in 2012. The result: Cramer won by 35,000 votes, a huge margin.
Between the two elections, North Dakota’s population increased from about 700,000 to about 750,000. So here’s what I think happened to Heidi. A whole bunch of those 50,000 new people—generally, people who came here because of the oil boom—were Republicans. And North Dakota’s Republican Party did a way better job than the Democrats of identifying and turning out their voters. The North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party’s once-vaunted Get Out The Vote program, which set the standard for the nation for a couple of decades beginning in the 1970s, has fallen behind the Republicans’ effort.
That spells continued trouble for the Democrats down the road, because if indeed many of those 50,000 new residents are Republicans, and they’re likely here to stay for a while, that means there will continue to be more Republicans in North Dakota than Democrats, so all the Republicans have to do to win is to get their voters to the polls. Democrats need to get every one of their voters to the polls AND convince independents who vote, to vote for Democrats. Their job is harder.
One other point to make about the Senate race. In North Dakota, incumbents rarely lose elections. As I pointed out earlier, only twice in the last 75 years have incumbent U. S. Senators been defeated here. North Dakotans are nice people, and they don’t fire their elected officials for no good reason. But in this race, both Heitkamp and Cramer were in essence incumbents, because Heitkamp is the Senator and Cramer the Congressman, and only one of them was going back to Washington next year. So one of them had to get fired. Heidi drew the short straw.
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A couple things of note on Measure 3, the legalization of marijuana, which was defeated by a margin of 60-40 percent.
The measure actually passed in four of the state’s 53 counties. Want to try to guess which ones they were? You might expect Cass County to be one of them. It’s our most liberal (read: urban) county, and yes, it passed there by a narrow margin, with 51 percent of the voters saying “Yes, legalize it,” and 49 percent saying “No way.”
So what were the other three counties voting to legalize pot? Here’s a hint: They have something in common. They are Benson, Rolette and Sioux counties—reservation counties—home to the Spirit Lake, Turtle Mountain and Standing Rock tribes. And it ran pretty strong in Mountrail County, which contains much of the Three Affiliated Tribes reservation. My friend Mike Jacobs pointed this out to me, speculating it might have something to do with Native Americans’ traditional use of herbs as medicine. Well, maybe.
The second thing of note was called to my attention by another friend, former State Senator Tracy Potter, who pointed out that marijuana in North Dakota is more popular than Democrats. Measure 3 got more “Yes” votes than every Democrat on the ballot except Heidi Heitkamp. 131,585 North Dakotans voted to legalize marijuana. Heitkamp got 143,737 votes. The next closest Democrat was Tax Commissioner candidate Kylie Oversen, with 128,244, losing to marijuana by just over 3,000 votes. Kylie will go down in history as being almost as popular as marijuana.
Thanks to Mike and Tracy for their research. Hmmm, I wonder why they were so interested in that measure.
Oh, and by the way, 322,613 voters cast ballots for either Cramer or Heitkamp in the U.S. Senate election, the race at the top of the ballot. But 324,736 cast ballots on the marijuana measure, about 2,000 more than the Senate race, way down at the bottom of the ballot. And there were just over 2,000 write-in votes in the Senate race. I don’t have access to those ballots, and nobody keeps track of the names anyway, but I have to guess a couple thousand potheads wrote in the name of a friend and then later that night, told them “Hey, man, I voted for you for the United States Senator.” To which the friends responded, “Far out, man.”
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One bright spot for the Democrats: they successfully defended every one of their Legislative seats in Tuesday’s election, and picked up three new ones. Of course, there were only 13 Democratic incumbents on the ballot. Those 13, and the three new seats (two in District 43 in Grand Forks and one in District 27 in Fargo), plus the nine Democrats serving even-numbered districts who didn’t have to run this election brings the Democrats’ total to just 25 out of 141 total seats in the Legislature. Uffda.
Former Senator Jonell Bakke won her old seat back in District 43, defeating Sen. Lonnie Laffen, the man who beat her back in 2010, and she carried two new House members with her, Mary Adams and Matt Eidson. They replaced Republican Rich Becker, who finished in third place in the balloting and retiring Democratic-NPL Representative Lois Delmore.
The only other new Democrat in the Legislature in the coming session will be Ruth Buffalo in District 27, who beat incumbent Republican Randy Boehning, who got caught up in a sex scandal during the 2015 Legislative Session. After voting against a gay rights bill, Boehing was busted for sending an unsolicited photo of his penis to a young gay man in Bismarck. Disgusted with the hypocrisy of Boehing’s vote, the young fellow outed him, and Boehning was forced to admit he was bisexual and had been advertising for a “hookup” on a gay website. Boehning thought enough time had gone by that he could survive the scandal and be re-elected, but voters disagreed.
Ruth Buffalo will be the Legislature’s only female Native American Legislator (and the first in my memory). Look for her star to rise quickly in the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party and in North Dakota state government.
In another Fargo district, House Majority Leader Al Carlson from Fargo’s District 41 picked a very strong running mate, Michelle Strinden, hoping that the two of them could defeat incumbent Democrat Representative Pam Anderson. Backfired. Strinden finished first. Anderson finished second. Anderson’s Democratic running mate Brandon Medenwald finished third. Al Carlson finished fourth—last. I repeat, Al Carlson finished fourth—last. Once more, Al Carlson finished fourth—last.
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All the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t stop a couple of little old ladies and their volunteer committee from shepherding a “good government” measure to victory. Measure 1, which establishes a State Ethics Commission and makes lobbyists accountable for their expenditures to influence government, passed easily, by almost 23,000 votes. Now it’s up to the Legislature to implement the mandates set out in the new Article XIV of our State Constitution.
The measure passed in spite of a big, well-financed lineup of energy and industry heavy hitters in opposition, at least partly because of the professional management of the campaign by young Mandy Kubik from Dickinson, who succeeded in attracting national expertise and financial support for the measure. The “Badass Grandmas,” Ellen Chafee and Dina Butcher, who hired Kubik, ran an aggressive campaign with the funds they raised, spending them wisely, and while they couldn’t match the spending by business groups who financed the opposition, they were more effective, in part because as my friend Tracy Potter used to say, paraphrasing Alfred Lord Tennyson “their strength was as the strength of ten, because their hearts were pure.” They were the good guys in this contest, and sometimes the good guys win.
Democrats thinking about how to rebuild their party might want to take note of this issue. Ethics in government resonated with the voters.
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