A North Dakota Republican friend of mine was lamenting the results of the election during a phone conversation the other day. His tone took a right turn down Woe Is Us Street.
"I should be elated. We have even more seats in the Legislature. The night was way better than expected. It was surprising, actually," he said. "But ..."
But you didn't win every, single, solitary seat in both houses, so you feel like you failed?
"No. We might have won too many seats. The infighting among Republicans in the next session is going to be unbelievable. Since there won't be any Democrats to fight with, we'll end up fighting amongst ourselves," he said. "We have every possible range of Republican in the Legislature, from moderates to Libertarians to wackos way out on the right. It's going to be like one big herd of cats that Al Carlson is going to have to control, and he's not a very good leader, so he won't be able to. It's going to be a (fecal matter) show."
Carlson is the majority leader in the House of Representatives, the most powerful politician in the state. He will have his hands full for sure in 2017, between trying to keep his caucus on task and making life as miserable as possible for incoming (Republican) governor Doug Burgum. The new governor, you'll recall, campaigned against what he perceived to be shortcomings in the Legislature, and that left some legislators (including Carlson) less than enamored with the rich guy from Fargo.
I imagine Angry Al walking into the governor's office and pulling a Ted Nugent, grabbing a portion of his anatomy and snarling: "I got your CEO of the state right here!"
Lamentations are all a matter of degree, of course. If my Republican friend believes the state's elected bodies are going to be a (fecal matter) show because of an embarrassment of riches, North Dakota Democrats are rolling their eyes and muttering, "I got your super-duper majority right here!"
Already an extremely marginal factor in state politics, the Democrats took a whipping at the polls that left them possibly unable to fill minority party spots on committees. Eleven incumbent Democrats lost House seats, seven incumbent Dems lost Senate seats.
The Democrats are left with 13 seats in the 94-member House and nine seats in the 47-member Senate. Even in already bright-red North Dakota, progressives got Trumped.
"We just feel like we got caught in a wave election," said Kylie Oversen, state Dem-NPL chair who lost her House seat in District 42 in Grand Forks. "We ran good candidates, we had a good message, we campaigned hard, and we came out on the losing end. There's no other way to look at it."
The results were stunning because some seemingly popular legislators, including some long-serving and some in reliably left-leaning districts, got the boot. They were trounced in most cases.
Sen. Phil Murphy in District 20, Rep. Jerry Kelsh in District 26, Sen. Mac Schneider in District 42, Rep. Kenton Ohnstad in District 4. Gone, gone, gone and gone.
Which leaves one to ask the question: Where do North Dakota Democrats go from here? If you're losing good legislators in friendly districts, what's the future? Is there one for Democrats in North Dakota?
"Oh, yes. We'll still be here. We're not going anywhere," said Schneider, considered one of the brightest stars among the state's young Democrats. "We're going to continue to fight and look out for the interests of North Dakotans. Some day, North Dakota residents will need Democrats, and we'll be ready to serve them. It might be as soon as two years."
Those are optimistic words, as they should be, looking ahead to the next election. Reality is a little tougher. President-elect Donald Trump's economic message (better, higher-paying jobs) clearly resonated strongly among working-class and middle-class whites in middle America who believe national Democrats offer them nothing.
There might be a lesson there for North Dakota Democrats, because at last check, the state is located in middle America and filled with mostly working-class and middle-class whites.
Moderation, my friends.
Think about two storylines that happened in the past few years. U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, the lone bright spot these days for North Dakota Democrats, was savaged by many in her state party (full disclosure: I also criticized her strongly) for voting against background checks on some gun purchases. She was accused of abandoning her party, of not being a Democrat, of selling out.
A few years later, lifelong Republican Burgum announced his run for governor and, because of his apparent moderate views on social issues like gay marriage and abortion, Democrats fell in love with him. In fact, they flocked to the polls in the Republican primary to vote for him. Part of that, of course, was a desire to defeat entrenched establishment candidate Wayne Stenehjem. But, still, there was clearly a Dem-NPL love affair with Burgum.
To recap: Democrats hammered Heitkamp over guns when they agree with her on 98 percent of everything else. They swooned over Burgum on gay marriage and abortion when they disagree with him on 98 percent of everything else. It doesn't make any sense, especially when a majority of North Dakotans agree with Heitkamp on guns and disagree with Burgum on his social stances.
A properly cynical Democrat friend offered this nugget: "North Dakota Democrats have to stop watching Rachel Maddow and thinking that's where the party needs to go. She's appealing to New York and Los Angeles. That's not what North Dakota is." Judging by state-level election results, it's also not what Minnesota or South Dakota or many other states are.
There's no doubt the Trump wave was the overriding factor in Democrats taking a beating in North Dakota (and rural Minnesota). But it's not the only reason. What matters most to Americans, almost always, is economic security. Perhaps that got lost in the proper and good fights over other issues.
So Democrats, that's all you have to fix to be relevant in North Dakota again. No big deal. It's only Herculean if you let it be. Just don't whine about it to Republicans. They're too busy chewing their fingernails over the impossible task of dealing with an unruly super-duper majority and the (fecal matter) show about to ensue when the Legislature convenes. It's all a matter of perspective, one supposes.