Southwest North Dakota is by no means some bastion of political divisiveness. Though, we are absolutely blood-red Republican on the political map, there have always been Democrats willing and able to step up and take a shot at winning local and state elections.
Sometimes — and it wasn’t even that long ago — they won.
It begs the question: What the heck happened to the Democrats?
Last Tuesday night, southwest North Dakota’s Democrats held their party meeting in the conference room at Players Sports Bar and Grill in Dickinson. It was supposed to be part-Super Tuesday watch party, part-nominating meeting for District 36 candidates in the 2016 election.
Not a single candidate emerged from that meeting. No one stepped up as willing to seek the nomination for the district’s three legislative positions up for grabs this November. Instead, the district’s executive committee will likely nominate — i.e. appoint — candidates at the party’s state convention on April 1.
This lack of enthusiastic participation among Democrats is disconcerting to those of us who love the political process and, worse yet, anecdotal evidence suggests it’s a common theme across the state.
On Thursday night, three Republican candidates for governor held a statewide televised debate. The Democrats haven’t even put up one candidate.
Kylie Oversen, the state’s Democratic chair and a Killdeer native, has said numerous times that the party plans to roll out its governor candidate either before or during the state convention.
By then, it’ll already be too late. The Democratic candidate, barring some miracle, doesn’t stand a chance against a fired-up Republican base ready to hold on to the governor’s office for a 25th year and beyond.
So, have our state’s Democrats become defeatists when it comes to statewide positions, or is it something different?
The last Democrat to hold the governor’s office was George Sinner. He beat Dickinson’s Leon Mallberg in 1988 — his final term — with 60 percent of the vote. Since then, the only Democrat to garner more than 45 percent of the vote was in 2000 when our current U.S. senators John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp faced off, with Hoeven emerging the victor.
Still, until 2010, all three of North Dakota’s U.S. Congress seats on the left side of the aisle in Washington.
The past few election cycles have made for somewhat shocking turn to the right for a state that once prided itself in bipartisanism.
Now, Heitkamp is the only remaining left-wing politician who holds any major national or state office. And how did she do it? Simple. She has occasionally sided with the pro-oil and pro-coal crowds, often distances herself from President Barack Obama’s most liberal viewpoints and speaks not only to her party’s base, but to moderate swing voters.
So where are the Democrats’ future Heidis? Are they out there and just bad at getting their message out? Are they unelectable because they’re not willing to play the same political game Heitkamp does? Do they even exist?
We’re three months away from June primaries and just under 250 days from the Nov. 8 general election.
Democrats need someone — anyone — to step up soon if the party wants even a fighting chance at winning the state’s gubernatorial or congressional elections. Remember, Hoeven and Rep. Kevin Cramer are up for election too. So far, no challengers.
Republicans have been in charge of state government through good times and bad for nearly a quarter-century, and it seems obvious that Democrats have no real plans to challenge that.
It’s a lack of action that’s frustrating.
As a media member, it’s obviously not fun to cover unopposed political races. More importantly, it would represent an unfortunate step backward in our political process.
Where’s the North Dakota pride and spirit?
North Dakota Democrats need to get their act together, rally their base and find some candidates who can make this a legitimate election. And they need to do so quickly, otherwise the defeatist attitude will translate into exactly that.