Speculation on the 2020 gubernatorial race has already begun and, for the incumbent, it looks more like a walk.

There is no use in making a charade out of the whole thing, so let’s put the political circles at ease by making an iron-clad prognostication: Gov. Doug Burgum will be the Republican candidate but the sacrificial Democrat has yet to be found.

When I was working on the Fifth edition of State and Local Government in America, I came to the chapter on the executive and wondered how to best describe the job of governor. At the time (1987), I declared the office of governor to be the most difficult of any office in the American governmental system.


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Presidents go golfing; members of Congress are beyond the reach of constituents, and state officials and legislators have no visibility. But the press is constantly at the governor’s elbow; some elected official is always screwing up; most lieutenant governors are political nuances (except in North Dakota); aggrieved citizens demand to see the governor personally; and the out-party distorts motives.

In North Dakota, we have committees, commissions and boards by the dozen and more elected officials than any other state than South Carolina, all of whom need coordinating whether or they want it or not, and it’s mostly not.

So I ask you: who would want to govern the ungovernable? Our government requires the effort of a mountain to bring forth a molehill.

But it looks like Burgum can have the job for the asking. I don’t think he even has to ask. He is faced with a handful of sulking dissidents on the right and a declining fragmented Democratic Party on the left that has no idea where the center of North Dakota ideology is.

Forum News Service reporter Sam Easter guessed that the Democratic-NPL slide started in the early 1990s. He is right. When the liberal ideologues resisted the nomination of an outstanding moderate candidate for governor because he wasn’t pure on their issues, they sealed the party’s doom.

Failing to learn a lesson from this political misstep, the ideologues are still here. In fact, one-fourth of the delegates to the last Dem-NPL convention voted against Heidi Heitkamp because she compromised on two issues. As it turned out, she wasn’t conservative enough.

Given the atmosphere in the 2018 election, I was convinced that North Dakota was going to see something like the Johnson landslide of 1994. Sure enough, it was a landslide but in every state except North Dakota. Nationally, Democrats got the House of Representative by winning all across the country, including other rural states.

So what happened in North Dakota? Bickering between the liberal ideologues and the party regulars didn’t help. The hard fact is that they can’t expect to be left-wing liberals and represent such a conservative constituency. In a democracy, we sort of expect the elected officials to reflect the will of the people. At least, most of the time.

The choice is between winning elections and making ideological points. If the super liberals don’t want to play the game that is called, they might as well get off the field.

Omdahl is a former N.D. lieutenant governor and retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email ndmatters@midco.net