I had a front-row seat to debates for two of North Dakota’s most hotly contested elected positions on Thursday night, serving as the timer for U.S. House and agriculture commissioner debates while Press Publisher Harvey Brock moderated the event sponsored and organized by the North Dakota Newspaper Association on the opening night of its annual convention at the Radisson hotel in Bismarck.
These debates weren’t so much about who won and lost as they were an opportunity for the candidates to feel each other out on stage, establish talking points and set the tone for what will likely end up being the state’s two closest races of the year.
In the House race, Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer and George Sinner, a Democrat state senator, obviously don’t agree on much. Libertarian candidate Jack Seaman is a wild card that sides with Cramer on a few topics, but is extremely anti-government. He called for the end of the U.S. Postal Service and privatization of mail, and was vehemently against anything to do with taxes or the Affordable Care Act. Some of Seaman’s statements made me wonder if he could cut into Cramer supporters in the middle and far right.
Sinner distanced himself from Democrats throughout the nation by saying he supports building the Keystone XL pipeline. He pointed to the BNSF Railway derailment and explosion outside of his hometown of Casselton as a reason why the nation needs more safe and effective ways to transport crude oil, especially the stuff getting pumped out of the ground in western North Dakota. It’s all pretty standard stuff, though he may have the catchiest slogan of the three with “The work comes first.” North Dakotans are going to eat that up, regardless of political affiliation.
Cramer stood his ground after Sinner attacked him for taking a paycheck during the government shutdown — half of which he claimed went to charity, though he never publicized it at the time — and played up his ongoing support of Keystone XL and federal funding for the Fargo-Moorhead Division Project, as well as his dislike of Obamacare, and voting for the farm bill and trimming of the federal budget.
In a rare move for an incumbent, Cramer even said he’d be open to as many debates as Sinner and Seaman wanted. That’s pretty brash, even for a Republican in a red state. Then again, confidence and swagger are two things Cramer doesn’t really lack. Outspokenness on a variety of issues has a way of energizing his base in a way we never saw out of Republican Rick Berg or Democrat Earl Pomeroy, his predecessors.
Though Cramer likely has the early edge on Sinner, the agriculture commissioner will likely stand out as a down-to-the-wire race. Why? Because the position regulates the state’s two largest industries: agriculture and energy. The agriculture commissioner is on the North Dakota Industrial Commission alongside the governor and attorney general.
Democrat Ryan Taylor is undoubtedly for oil development, though it’s easy to see he’d bring an desire for more regulation and vocality on the subject if he were elected. Expect Taylor to play up the energy side of the conversation first and use his ag background as the kicker if people try to associate him with his party’s national politics, from which he’s fairly far removed.
Doug Goehring, the Republican incumbent who at least a few from his own party made clear they didn’t want to see in office again based on the massive turnover of staff inside of his office, has the inside track if he makes people understand that agriculture does indeed come first for the agriculture commissioner, even though that isn’t what is making headlines these days.
Taylor is beloved by some North Dakotans for his folksy, down-home take on life — “Cowboy Logic,” as his books and columns are named — and smartly plays that up for a large segment of voters who wouldn’t mind an elected official like that. Meanwhile, it’s clear Goehring has seen international impact North Dakota makes in agriculture and energy up close, and speaks like it.
The interesting thing about this position is that the talking points are going to evolve, if not change entirely, by the time the election rolls around. Six months is an eternity for both the agriculture and energy industries. These are indeed interesting times for North Dakota. I mean, who would have ever guessed that the agriculture commissioner would be a position we were paying this close of attention to this early in the game?
We may still be six months away from the elections, but it’s clearly shaping up to be an entertaining year for North Dakota politics with ever-changing storylines and great debates.