North Dakota Republicans cannot keep relying on the incompetence of Democrats

The North Dakota Republican Party has built a dominant political machine.

They hold every single statewide office, and majorities in the Legislature so large that when Republicans act in concert Democrats are inconsequential to the policymaking process.

This didn’t happen by accident.

Party leaders like Ed Schafer, John Hoeven, and Kevin Cramer (to name just a few) have consistently led Republicans to victories at the ballot box with a keen sense for the whims of the electorate.

Ideology doesn’t explain why Democrats have been unable to win a legislative majority since the early 1990s.

Or why they’ve won just one statewide election since 2008.

Or why their bench of candidates is so thin their only star is Heidi Heitkamp who lost re-election to the U.S. Senate just last year and has won just one statewide election in the last 23 years.

The NDGOP has practiced a ruthless devotion to political pragmatism, and it has worked.

Republicans have made the not-particularly-conservative North Dakota electorate feel respected and listened to, and they’ve responded by voting overwhelmingly for Republican candidates.

I sense this is changing.

Backlash against Republican leadership is growing.

That voters cast their ballots for Measure 1, the deeply flawed “ethics” amendment backed by Hollywood activists last year, was not an expression of the public’s confidence in our Republican-dominated state government.

We can debate whether that decline in confidence is fair or not, but it doesn’t really matter.

In politics, perception is reality.

There are widespread (and not entirely fair) feelings of resentment toward lawmakers over what many perceive as delays in implementing medical marijuana policy approved by voters in 2016.

Now the 2019 legislative session has inspired not one but two nascent citizen campaigns to repudiate lawmakers.

One seeks to block the Legislature from amending the constitution as it relates to the initiated measure process.

Another seeks to refer the Legislature’s new limits on the powers of the state Auditor to the ballot.

It’s unclear if either of these proposals will earn enough support to be successful, but the angst they reflect in the electorate is very real. And growing, in my estimation.

What will Republicans do about it? Plow forward, as they have in recent years, confident the momentum of past electoral successes will continue to deliver ballot box victories?

Maybe that will work for them. The Democrats hardly seem threatening. They recently reorganized their party and chose as their chairwoman former lawmaker Kylie Oversen, fresh off a miserable and unsuccessful campaign against incumbent Tax Commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger.

This is Oversen’s second turn as chair – she stepped down for a bit during the 2018 election cycle – and it’s unlikely this one being any more successful than the last which saw her party’s presence in state government taken down to historic lows.

Democrats have weak, incompetent leadership and a paucity of convincing candidates.

Republicans, even as voters show signs of restlessness, can probably count on those things to make them successful again in 2020.

But how long can Republicans keep expecting to win by default?

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Plain Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.

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