The year 1992 and the number zero are important in North Dakota. In 1992, the Republican Party began its takeover of the state when Governor Ed Schaefer was elected. Since then, the GOP has only solidified its hold on North Dakota through responsive governance and being in tune with the electorate. Talk to any Republican in North Dakota (and many Democrats) and they will confirm the fact that the GOP runs better candidates and when they win, they are responsive and easy to deal with.
In 2018, the North Dakota races were closely watched as the Senate was held in the balance. Naturally, Republicans prevailed unseating a Democrat incumbent Senator. As a result, the entire delegation to DC which numbers three has worked closely with the Trump administration. This brings us to that second important number- zero. That is the number of times former president Barack Obama visited the state as President. He did make an appearance in 2014 before declaring his candidacy, but then he was a do-nothing senator from a liberal state. Conversely, President Trump went to North Dakota to tout his tax reform package and made many appearances during the 2018 midterms. This underscores the Democrat’s elitist scorn of so-called “flyover country” which Trump does not ignore.
As first-term Governor Burgum stated:
I think it’s exciting for North Dakota, particularly at this point in time because we’ve got an administration that believes in empowering states. We’ve got an administration that understands that the states created the federal government, not the other way around.
Rick Berg has assumed the leadership of the state party after a unanimous vote. He had succeeded Kelly Armstrong after she resigned seeking a House seat in the GOP primary in 2018.
If there are two problems for the GOP in 2020 and beyond, one has little to do with Trump. The one having to do with him are tariffs and the ongoing trade battle with China. North Dakota is still largely an agricultural state, but most farmers and ranchers are giving Trump a lot of leeway saying that China has played loose and free with free trade to the detriment of American farmers.
The second problem is recruitment. Geographically, North Dakota is a large state with a small population dominated by ranchers, farmers and small businessmen. The GOP admits it is hard to find young leaders willing to enter the political fray lest it take them away from raising families, farming, ranching, or running a business. However, the Democrats, fewer in number, are not immune to these factors also, so the GOP starts with a decided advantage.
In 2020, there are 23 state senate seats and 46 state house seats on the ballot and all are for 4-year terms. Thus far, only one Republican has announced his retirement. However, given that GOP advantage in the state, no one is predicting a GOP apocalypse in North Dakota come 2020.
In neighboring South Dakota, Democrat state chairman Paula Hawks is putting a happy face on 2020. You cannot blame the woman for optimism when she said:
2020 has the potential to be a great year for Democrats, and I can promise that the staff and I will work hard every day to win back the U.S. Senate and House seats that are up for election, to break the GOP’s supermajority in Pierre, and turn South Dakota blue for the Democratic nominee for president.
That is a very tall order in the state and not likely to happen. Her optimism is matched by the more realistic vision of state GOP chair Dan Lederman when he said:
In the last election, we retained our incredibly high number of Republicans in the state Legislature, and swept every statewide office, including the historic election of Kristi Noem to the governor’s office. I can’t wait to start working for the next election, where we plan to deliver another win for Dusty Johnson to Congress, Mike Rounds to the U.S. Senate and to give Donald Trump four more years in the White House.
To date, Democrats in South Dakota have failed to recruit a viable candidate to run against GOP Senator Mike Rounds or Rep. Dusty Johnson. Both have yet to announce their candidacy, but they are in the state appearing at events and marching in parades as if they are running.
Besides their anemic recruitment efforts, the Democrats have other problems- one financial and one legal. Recently, Hawks announced that they were closing offices in two key cities- Sioux Falls and Rapid City- in a cost-saving effort. Blaming the problems on previous leadership is the go-to excuse.
On the legal side, a draft audit indicated that the state Democrat Party possibly received over $67,000 in contributions from unregistered sources and did not disclose over $46,000 in debt and obligations on financial disclosures. An audit by the FEC also showed they understated disbursements by about $2.5 million. That $2.5 million passed through state party coffers on its way to a joint fundraising committee known as the Hillary Victory Fund operating in conjunction with the DNC. This allowed the Clinton campaign to sidestep legal limits on contributions to the DNC by using the Hillary Victory Fund to pool the contribution limits applicable to all 38 state parties, including that of South Dakota. Hence, donors to the Hillary Victory Fund could write a single check for up to $418,000- the $5,400 allowable to the Clinton campaign, the allowable $33,400 for the DNC, and the $380,000 maximum allowable to be split among the 38 state parties.
The Hillary Victory fund then gave each state its share of the proceeds. Because state parties can transfer unlimited funds among themselves, each state party then transferred the funds to the DNC. According to the FEC complaint, the 38 state parties served as conduits for $80 million from over 1,500 individuals who had already reached the legal limit for donations to the DNC. But again, according to Democrats in the state, that was all attributable to the people signing checks since 2000 for the party in South Dakota. They were simply left holding the bag.
If there is any silver lining for a Democrat party in financial and other disarray in the state, it is the potential pending primary battle between Mike Rounds and freshman state Rep. Schyller Borglum of Rapid City. Calling it commonsense conservatism, she has aligned herself with President Trump and is oddly running against Rounds in the primary from the left of Rounds. Trump has not waded into this battle, but could likely support either if Borglum scores a primary upset.
There are also some rumblings in South Dakota about the ongoing trade battle with China and its effect on South Dakota’s agriculture industry. Republican Governor Kristi Noem has been vocal in her criticism of the battle and has suggested that it has to end soon.
Like its neighbor to the north, South Dakota is in no danger of going for Democrats come 2020. However, they did also give us George McGovern who ran against Nixon in 1972. Of course, he lost and he lost his home state doing so. And like its neighbor to the north, it is doubtful you will see Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden or any Democrat spending too much time in South Dakota but for a perfunctory visit on their way to some coastal fundraiser. Well, at least Obama did make one visit to the state.