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Still without statewide candidates, ND Democrats optimistic

Rep. Kylie Oversen, chairwoman of the ND Democratic Party. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service

BISMARCK – Despite having no announced candidates for statewide office eight weeks from their state convention, North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party officials say they remain confident a strong ticket will emerge in the next few weeks.

Kylie Oversen, chairwoman of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party, said the party expects to fill its slate and have a strong state convention March 31 through April 2 at the Bismarck Event Center.

“It’s mostly a matter of working out details with employers before they go public,” Oversen said.

By contrast, the Republicans have three candidates running for the nomination for governor and two for state auditor ahead of their convention April 1-3 at Scheels Arena in Fargo. They also have one candidate running for the open insurance commissioner seat and all remaining statewide incumbents up for election running.

Republicans hold every statewide office in the Capitol tower, two of the three spots in the congressional delegation and two-thirds majorities in both legislative chambers.

Oversen said the party’s recruitment efforts are ongoing, though there are concerns about lagging efforts to fundraise.

“Three or four months (behind), they’re going to be at a disadvantage,” said Oversen, adding that developing and spreading a message shouldn’t be a concern since the focus is on convention endorsements.

“Most of the messaging is the rallying the base. People get a bit tired with the long campaigns," said Oversen, acknowledging the party is in an extremely tough spot.

She said rebuilding must be done brick by brick, which is why the primary focus is on legislative races. She said statewide offices aren’t being ignored, however.

“Any major changes aren’t going to happen in one cycle. It takes many years to rebuild from the ground up,” Oversen said.

Oversen said she believes the party can pick up seats in the House and possibly one or two in the Senate.

In the 2012 election cycle, the Democrats had announced candidates for U.S. Senate, House and for the governor’s race before the end of 2011. Candidates for the remaining statewide races announced in March and April of 2012.

In 2014, all seven of their statewide candidates announced in February and March.

Additional blows to Democrats’ recruitment push have been the decisions by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp last fall and former state agriculture commissioner Sarah Vogel last month not to run for governor.

The lack of potential opponents, especially at the top of the ticket, have left top Republicans scratching their heads.

“I’m shocked they haven’t found anyone to run … for state office,” Roz Leighton, executive director of the North Dakota Republican Party, said. “I didn’t think they wouldn’t be able to field a candidate.”

Leighton said at a recent Republican National Committee meeting on the East Coast leaders from other states found the contrast between the two parties jaw dropping.

Leighton said the Democrats are “between a rock and a hard place” in rebuilding efforts.

“The way forward for us is to continue to recruit these centrist, hard-working candidates who are also active in their district,” Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, said of legislative recruiting.

Schneider said their gains in the Legislature have been minimal in recent elections but they provide a strong foundation.

“We’re far from satisfied,” Schneider said of where the party is at, adding that a more balanced split in state government leads to stronger debates and policy decisions.

He said the party has had an impact, having joined with some Republicans to kill a proposed oil tax cut in the 2013 session as well as approval of Medicaid expansion. Schneider said support grew in the 2015 session for legislation to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Robert Haider, executive director of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party, said the candidate picture will come into sharper focus during district conventions, scheduled for Feb. 16 through March 11.

He said recruitment has been fairly in line with previous election cycles and agreed with Oversen on the potential for picking up some legislative seats to begin building momentum.

“It’s not going to happen overnight, (but) it has to start sometime,” Haider said.

Republican Party Vice-Chairman Jim Poolman said under Republican leadership the economy has diversified, the state’s population has grown, thousands of jobs have been created and oil production hit record levels for a time.

Last week, a projected $1.074 billion budget gap was announced. The shortfall is due to lower state revenue collections stemming primarily from reduced oil production. Despite the revenue picture changing, Poolman said Democrats still have a tough case to make as to how they could be better trusted running state government.

“Republicans have put money away where it’s not as bad as it could have been,” Poolman said. “We could’ve spent more, but where would we be now?”

Poolman said with open seats for governor, state auditor and insurance commissioner, it’s even more surprising the Democrats haven’t joined the fray yet.

Meanwhile, the GOP has jumped at the opportunity.

“Gov. Jack Dalrymple gave us a lemon by deciding not to run,” Poolman said. “We’ve absolutely made lemonade out of it.”

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