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Port: Coal country may become ground zero for the NDGOP's civil war

This primary race, and some others like it across the state, will be a bellwether moment for the NDGOP.

Senator JessicaBell Congressman Kelly Armstrong
U.S. Rep. Kelly Armstrong, right, hosts a roundtable of North Dakota's energy community at Bismarck State College in April 2019 featuring state commissioners, industry leaders, and state Sen. Jessica Bell, center.
Brandon L. Summers / The Dickinson Press
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MINOT, N.D. — It's been a bitter campaign season so far for the NDGOP.

The party's majority of competent, experienced incumbents has been under assault from an insurgency of Trump-aligned populists more concerned with the culture war than sound governance.

Perhaps nowhere in the state's legislative races was this more visible than in District 33, where Sen. Jessica Bell, who was a key part of keeping Coal Creek Station open, saving entire communities in her district, was defeated at her party's district endorsing convention by an influx of culture warrior delegates .

But that was never going to be the last word in the race. Under state law, party nominations happen on the June ballot. Party conventions only endorse.

Today, Sen. Bell has announced her intent to campaign in the June primary, taking on convention-endorsed candidate Keith Boehm.

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"With enthusiasm and vision for the future, today I am announcing that I will run for re-election to the North Dakota Senate’s 33rd District," Bell said in a released statement. "North Dakota deserves strong, conservative leadership with experience now more than ever to boost our economy, foster growth in coal country and protect our communities from government overreach. I am that leader. I have and will continue to work tirelessly for the good of all the families of District 33."

This is a primary race in a largely rural legislative district. The politics of it will be hyper-local, and yet the import of this race is statewide.

The NDGOP is the most consequential political organization in our state, and there is a war for the soul of that party.

Will it continue to be the pragmatic organization of mostly policy-first political leaders? People who care about roads and schools and opportunities for North Dakotans?

The sort of people who have allowed the NDGOP to enjoy three decades of dominance?

Or will the party succumb to this new movement of crude populism, where the priority is whatever the Fox News prime time lineup is ranting about?

This race, in the heart of North Dakota's coal country, isn't about conservative principles, though the populist side of it will try and make it seem that way. Sen. Bell has a strong and unassailable track record of conservative policymaking. No person saying otherwise is being honest.

The choice the people of District 33 have before them is whether to stick with someone who has a reputation as a focused and influential lawmaker, or to cast that person aside in favor of the sort of crassly theatrical politics that has come to permeate our federal government.

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This primary race, and some others like it across the state, will be a bellwether moment for the NDGOP.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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