The 2012 election cycle is upon us. The various races are beginning to solidify with candidates, and North Dakotans are getting the first looks at what choices they’ll be asked to make at the voting booth next year.
This is shaping up to be a strange cycle for the state. For the first time since the 1980’s North Dakota Republicans are tasked with defending a seat in Congress they control. And complicating the matter is the fact that the incumbent in that seat is running for the open Senate seat being vacated by Senator Kent Conrad who will be retiring at the end of this term.
The NDGOP picked up two of the state’s three federal seats in the last cycle, but they had the chill winds of Obamacare blowing at their backs. All the NDGOP had to do in that cycle was not fumble the ball as they sprinted into the end zone. But this cycle is different, and some Republicans are feeling spooked. I hear talk among Republicans about how some of the candidates are weak (most notably Rep. Rick Berg), and how Democrats could make up ground with a strong candidate like Heidi Heitkamp.
Are these worries warranted? Republicans shouldn’t be overconfident, but North Dakota Democrats have five things working against them that will be their undoing in 2012.
Here they are, from least important to most important.
5) Their candidates really aren’t that good. One thing holding Demcorats back in a big way is a paucity of talented, well-known, credible candidates on their bench. As of right now, former state legislator and Dorgan staffer Pam Gulleson is the House candidate. State Senator Ryan Taylor is running for governor. People keep telling me that Heidi Heitkamp is running for the Senate. But neither Gulleson nor Taylor have ever won a state-wide contest before, and both will likely try to win by running to the left of their opponents. That’s not likely to be a recipe for success. Heitkamp has won a statewide election, but that was back in the 1990’s. Since then she’s moved far to the left, to the point of headlining SEIU rallies for Obamacare, and has had some troubling revelations about quid pro quo during her time as AG come to light. Heitkamp, specifically, is the “great white hope” of Democrats in the state, but from my perspective she’s looking a little dingy.
4) Things in North Dakota are really, really good. One thing North Dakotans love doing is voting for the status quo over and over again. This is a very conservative state, and I don’t necessarily mean that in an ideological sense. North Dakotans just don’t like a lot of change. Unless they have a really good reason to vote against the incumbent on the ticket (like, say, Obamacare in the last cycle) they’ll keep casting their ballots for the incumbent. With North Dakota’s economy prospering, it’s going to be hard for challengers to get any traction. There are some buttons that can be pushed – strain on infrastructure, housing shortages and friction between locals and the influx of out-of-state workers in the west are issues Republicans should be sensitive to – and you can bet Democrats will try to push them, but ultimately I don’t think it will be enough.
3) Barack Obama. It would be hard to overestimate just how corrosive an impact our increasingly unpopular President will have races in North Dakota. The candidates for federal office will be forced to either abandon the national Democrat party line, something voters probably won’t find very credible, or defend Obama’s failed policies. Democrats will try to defend policies like the stimulus by noting how much money came to North Dakota, but jobs aren’t an issue in North Dakota and nationally the president’s economic policies clearly haven’t worked. From the perspective of the average North Dakotan, the stimulus was a lot of wasted money. Plus, the bailouts and the stimulus are viewed by many to have been little more than a sop to the Democrats’ friends in the labor movement. These policies are a tough row to hoe for the Democrats. They can’t embrace them, but they can’t exactly run away from them either.
2) The Democrats have little in the way of an in-state fundraising network. In past election cycles North Dakota Democrats have been extremely dependent on out of state fundraising. In 2008 I wrote that the state Democrat party got roughly 80% of its money from out of state while the NDGOP got over 75% of its money from inside North Dakota. The key revenue stream for the Democrats was money raised by “Team North Dakota,” Senators Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad along with Rep. Earl Pomeroy. But two of those men are retired now, and Kent Conrad is headed for retirement and has little incentive to raise funds for the state party. Robbed of those revenue streams from national sources the Democrats will be forced to fall back on in-state fund raising networks they’ve allowed to atrophy. Combine that with most of the state’s prosperity coming from oil and gas development, something Democrats are viewed as being hostile to, and they’re in a real jam financially.
1) Obamacare. Yes, I already mentioned the albatross that President Obama will be, but the impact this centerpiece policy of his first term in office has had on the state is profound. It’s both a state and a federal issue (North Dakota is involved in a lawsuit with dozens of other states against the legislation, and much of Obamacare is being implemented at the state level) and no Democrat running for public office in the state is going to be able to avoid questions about it. The federal candidates, especially, will have a tough time as the state’s electorate is likely going to want candidates who will vote to repeal the bill upon reaching Washington DC. The best chances Democrats may have is going with some sort of hybrid of support and opposition to Obamacare, arguing that they support the concept of the reform but recognizing the reality of the policy needing tweaks. But this fence-sitting unlikely to win over many in a state where a popular nine-term incumbent like Earl Pomeroy was driven from office because of his vote for the legislation, and another long-time political fixture who supported it in former Senator Byron Dorgan retired rather than chancing the stormy electoral waters.
But there is one ray of hope for Democrats, and that is…
Republican incompetence and overconfidence. If there is one thing that could undo Republicans it is the utter lack of leadership in the party. For one thing, the NDGOP’s fundraising is shockingly off track. In the election cycle, the off year is the best fundraising time for political parties. During election years the candidates do most of the fundraising, crowding out the state party. So the parties try to build their campaign war chests during the off year. In the 2010 cycle, for instance, from January 1st of 2009 through September 30th of 2009 the NDGOP went from having just over $15,000 in cash on hand to having $154,027.89 cash on hand. Unfortunately, in the 2012 cycle, from January 1st of 2011 to September 30th of 2011 the NDGOP went from having $83,450 in cash on hand to $57,154.
In other words, during the time when the party’s accounts should have been growing they’ve actually been shrinking. And these federal reports only tell part of the story. The party has non-federal funds it reports to the North Dakota Secretary of State, but only once per year. I’m told by those who would know that the state-level funds aren’t doing much better. In fact, some in the party’s leadership are questioning the figures reported to the FEC. They say a recent report made to the NDGOP’s statewide committee indicated only $27,000 in total cash on hand with just $8,600 in the federal fund.
And there’s little chance the NDGOP can make up ground. The holiday season is the hardest to fund raise in, for obvious reasons, and next year candidates will be doing most of the fund raising.
Plus, right now the NDGOP has exactly two employees. An accountant and a 20-year-old communications director. There is no executive director, party Chairman Stan Stein is an absentee leader and Vice Chairman Jim Poolman spends more time bad mouthing conservative Republicans in off-the-record comments to the state’s reporters than he does helping the party. No offense intended toward those working for the party, but this leadership vacuum is a big, big problem.
Republicans have been so dominant, for so long, that they’re obviously on cruise control thinking they don’t need to do much to maintain their dominance. In that they’re sadly mistaken, and it could see Democrats making up ground in legislative and statewide races.