BISMARCK — Several North Dakota Democrats say they're looking for presidential candidates to connect with voters in Middle America as their party struggles to gain traction in the state's elections.
National polls suggest former Vice President Joe Biden is the current frontrunner among a crowded field of candidates seeking to take on President Donald Trump next year. Biden visited North Dakota twice last year in support of Heidi Heitkamp's failed Senate re-election bid.
But the campaign is still in its early days, and some North Dakota Democrats are already voicing support for other candidates.
House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, who will be a "superdelegate" at the party's national convention in July 2020, said he's supporting South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a Rhodes scholar with military experience who Boschee said has brought a level-headed attitude to the debate stage. He said Buttigieg's Indiana roots should help him understand concerns from the Midwest.
"I just continue to be impressed with his real-life experience," Boschee said. "He's new, he's an outsider."
Boschee, North Dakota's first openly gay lawmaker, also said the mayor's sexual orientation hasn't proven to be an issue in the campaign. He said he reached out to Buttigieg's camp to invite him to North Dakota, but plans for a visit haven't been announced.
Dina Baird, another one of North Dakota's four superdelegates, said she hasn't yet picked a favorite candidate.
North Dakota Democratic-NPL Chairwoman Kylie Oversen said the state party has amended its bylaws to require superdelegates to vote in line with caucus results at the national convention. Superdelegates have been free to support the candidate of their choosing, though the Democratic National Committee reduced their power to pick the nominee last year.
In March, the Democratic-NPL Party will hold a vote to determine the number of North Dakota delegates awarded to presidential candidates at the national convention. North Dakota's delegates to the 2016 Democratic National Convention mostly sided with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders as Hillary Clinton secured the party's nomination.
In the current campaign, Sanders is leading the race for individual donors in North Dakota, according to a New York Times analysis. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Buttigieg are also finding support from North Dakota's early donors.
Further down the list of potential nominees is Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, whom Tim Purdon, a former U.S. attorney for North Dakota, is supporting as a member of his campaign finance committee. Purdon said they met in the mid-2000s as private practice attorneys and later worked together in law enforcement — Bullock was Montana's attorney general before being elected governor in 2012.
Purdon touted Bullock's ability to attract red state voters, noting he won re-election in 2016 even while Trump carried his state.
"And I think that's very important as the Democratic Party tries to take back in the Electoral College states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan," he said.
Mac Schneider, a former North Dakota state senator who unsuccessfully ran for Congress last year, similarly argued the eventual nominee will need to compete in places that Democrats have previously "written off."
"I'm under no delusions about how difficult it would be for whoever the nominee is to win North Dakota, but I think if all you do is focus on the coasts and the suburbs, that's a recipe for something less than success," he said.
Several North Dakota Democrats surveyed by Forum News Service said they haven't yet decided who to back for president. Schneider highlighted Buttigieg as a candidate with "a lot of appeal" to North Dakotans and said he's a "big fan" of Biden.
It was only 11 years ago that former President Barack Obama and Biden lost North Dakota by less than 10 percentage points on the way to their first term in the White House. But that partisan gap has widened in the years since, and Trump drubbed Clinton by 36 percentage points here in 2016.
State GOP Chairman Rick Berg said the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates' positions on immigration, energy and gun control are out of step with those of most North Dakotans.
"It's going to be a real clear contrast between Trump and any one of those top-tier Democrat candidates," he said.
With Heitkamp's loss last year, Democrats hold no statewide elected offices in North Dakota and only about one-sixth of the seats in the Legislature.
Heitkamp has since helped launch the "One Country Project" initiative to help Democrats' electoral prospects in rural areas. The former senator was unavailable for an interview this week, but in a fundraising email for the new initiative, she focused on Senate races instead of the presidential contest.
"Unless we do a better job engaging rural Americans, Republicans will have a massive head start in every race for a Senate majority," she wrote. "And without a Democratic Senate, it won't matter who wins the White House in 2020: We'll be stuck with at least two more years of GOP obstruction in Congress."
Oversen was "grateful that we've got a slate of really strong candidates from all over the country," but she said the presidential debates have featured a "noticeable absence" of discussion on the Trump administration's trade tariffs and their effect on agricultural producers.
"We want to make sure that all of these candidates are prepared not only to talk about the issues, but to address them thoughtfully and strategically," she said.