North Dakota has had a significant population increase in the last 10 years, leading to the 2021 legislature drawing new boundaries for legislative districts. This redistricting created a sort of musical chairs as several legislators found themselves residing in a new district or saw significant changes to their old district boundaries.
State law directs the district party organizations to hold a district convention by early April where party members of that district choose who to endorse and place on the June primary ballot. Alternatively, candidates who don’t receive (or did not seek) the party’s endorsement may submit a petition to be on the primary ballot. The petition requires that they get signatures from 1% of the population, which is on average, 180 signatures. This qualifies them to be on the June primary ballot and run against the endorsed candidates.
Challenging endorsed candidates in the June primary is not new. Both Senator Kevin Cramer, R-ND, (in 2012) and Governor Doug Burgum (in 2016) challenged the party’s endorsed statewide candidates in the June primary and won. What is unusual this year, is that unlike the Cramer and Burgum races where most party leadership supported the endorsed candidates during the primary process, in many of the contested legislative races this year, party leadership is mounting opposition to the very candidates that party members have endorsed.
This first began in the 2020 races when Gov. Burgum donated more than $3 million to Dakota Leadership PAC to unseat endorsed incumbent legislators in three districts.
This year Burgum’s PAC is expected to fund opposition to endorsed candidates in at least a dozen legislative districts.
Bruce Gjovig, chairman of the Region II (Northeast) for the GOP and member of the GOP State Executive Committee, says he finds this troubling. While he says he welcomes the competitions that arise in the primary, he thinks the governor “should be cautious about wading into legislative races.”
“It’s important to maintain a separation of powers,” Gjovig said. “The executive branch should not be determining the composition of the legislative branch.”
Representative Sebastian Ertelt, R-Dis. 26, Gwinner, was a legislator representing District 26, but redistricting puts him into District 28 now, where he won the district’s endorsement for Senate. But one of the two endorsed candidates for House – Mike Brandenburg – refused to run with him and instead formed a slate with the Incumbent Senator Robert Eberle, R-Dis. 28, Lehr, who had lost the endorsing convention to Ertelt.
In District 8, the convention voted 4-1 to endorse Representative Jeff Magrum, R-Dis. 28, Hazelton (who also is effected by the redistricting), Brandon Prichard, and SuAnn Olson for the Senate seat and the two House seats, respectively. Unhappy with the outcome, their opponents started gathering signatures that very night and launched their own slate of candidates. Representative Dave Nehring, R-Dis. 8, Bismarck, along with Mike Berg and Scott McCarthy, have formed their own ticket. Party insiders say they expect this competing slate to be heavily funded by Burgum’s PAC.
Magrum pointed out that “this is the second time that I’ve had to face down the governor’s money. In 2020, his PAC outspent me 6 to 1.” Magrum attributes his win to voters who “want their own legislator, someone who is true to the party platform.”
In District 33, Representative Jeff Delzer, R-Dis. 8, Underwood, is also going up against Burgum’s money for the second time. In 2020 Delzer, lost the primary to Burgum’s candidate, David Andahl. But Andahl died before the November election, and the District 8 executive committee appointed Delzer to fill the vacancy. Redistricting now puts Delzer in District 33, another district targeted by Burgum.
The District 33 convention set a new attendance record with more than 400 people turning out. Delzer, along with Representative Bill Tveit, R-Dis. 33, Hazen, sought the district’s endorsement for House. Keith Boehm ran for Senate and all three candidates received an overwhelming 2-1 vote for the endorsement. But within days, three Burgum-backed candidates got the necessary signatures to be on the June primary ballot. Residents of the district report that in the last two weeks, they have received dozens of glossy mailers funded by the Dakota Leadership PAC in support of the non-endorsed candidates.
Gary Emineth is a resident of District 33 and says he supports the grassroots process. He is also a former State GOP Chairman, so he has an insider’s perspective. He says he is dismayed by all the money and political influence being spent in support of the non-endorsed candidates.
“I don’t know how you overcome that kind of machine,” said Emineth.
Emineth said he also worries about the long-term effects this intra-party opposition will have on the grassroots. He says he’s disappointed to see the governor and Senator John Hoeven, R-ND, reject the district’s choice.
“It’s a slap in the face. It disenfranchises all the people who turned out for the convention. They are wrecking the party and wrecking the grassroots,” said Emineth.
Perhaps no district illustrates the schism between party leadership and grassroots as much as District 15. Judy Estenson, who was vice-chairman and later chairman of District 23 for a total of six years, found herself redistricted into District 15. She handily won the endorsement in her new district with two-thirds of the vote. The district chairman, Vonda Markestad, immediately sent out a strongly worded email announcing that the party’s executive committee would not support Estenson’s candidacy.
The reason party leadership opposes Estenson’s endorsement, Markestad says, is because they view her as an outsider and a troublemaker, much like Representative Rick Becker, R-Dis. 7, Bismarck, and his supporters. She says they should not be affiliated with the party.
In her email Markestad said, “They are viewed as a cancer in our party.”
Adding fuel to the fire, the state GOP Senate Caucus has donated $15,000 to Estenson’s opponent, incumbent Senator Dave Oehlke, R-Dis. 15, Devils Lake.
It’s hard to get a clear understanding of the schisms rippling through legislative districts around the state, because the GOP Party leadership seems reluctant to talk about the reasons that party leadership is opposing the endorsed candidates in the primary races. The Associated Press recently reported on this story saying “Burgum has declined interviews with The Associated Press to discuss the campaign spending.” While writing this story, several members of the ND state GOP Executive Committee also declined to talk to The Dakotan.
Map of all legislative districts: https://ndlegis.gov/districts/2013-2022
Find out where to vote: https://vip.sos.nd.gov/WhereToVote.aspx