Port: Former Gov. Ed Schafer couldn't get elected to a precinct committee
"The NDGOP may soon be under the control of Trump-obsessed culture warriors who are taking over the brand, even as they demand a sharply different sort of politics."
MINOT, N.D. — "They don't want us anymore," former Gov. Ed Schafer told me.
Schafer, whose hugely successful tenure as governor back in the 1990s ushered in the North Dakota Republican Party's three-decade reign of dominance in state politics, had recently tried to get himself elected as a member of a precinct committee in District 46. He was defeated at the reorganization meeting by the same faction that also elected, as district chairman, an anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist who has railed on social media against tolerance for the LGBTQ community.
This matters, because that faction may soon control the leadership of the entire NDGOP. But more on Schafer and the traditional Republicans in a moment.
It's probably not marked on your calendar, but next month there is a hugely consequential political event that will have an outsized influence on the future of state politics.
The North Dakota Republican Party, our state's dominant political organization, the members of which control every statewide elected office and 88% of the seats in the Legislature, will be electing new leadership. There's a good chance that the state party, currently controlled by traditional or "normie" Republicans, could be taken over by a very Donald Trump-aligned faction of populist culture warriors.
If you've followed my work, you know that this has been happening at the district level for some time, but we may be reaching an inflection point where there are enough district-level chairs controlled by the Trump fanatics to control the entire state party.
District chairs also get a seat on the NDGOP calls its state committee, which in turn makes the policy that governs the party.
The current NDGOP chairman is Perrie Schafer, a businessman from the Bismarck area who came under fire from the Trumpy faction during the party's statewide convention last year. They tried to replace Schafer as chairman of the convention as a step toward helping former state lawmaker Rick Becker defeat incumbent U.S. Sen. John Hoeven for the convention's endorsement. It didn't work. Hoeven won at the convention, albeit narrowly, and defeated both Becker and his Democratic challenge in a landslide in the general election.
But Schafer is under fire again. He and his supporters have told me they think they have enough votes to hold on, but that they're even counting votes is a bad sign. Others tell me they don't have enough. If Schafer loses, we could see a radical shift in the NDGOP.
It's not clear yet who would run against Schafer for the chairmanship. One possibility is former chair Gary Emineth, the candidate who challenged Schafer for chairman of the state convention. Another is Jared Hendrix, a formerly Minot-based activist now living in Fargo who is the organizer behind these district-level takeovers.
One who isn't running for former chairman Robert Harms, who told me he considered the job but decided against seeking it, though his election wouldn't have been a boon for the MAGA crowd. He said he shares many of the same concerns I have about them.
Whoever it is, the goal, as Ed Schafer told me, is to push out the pragmatic, competent, traditionally-conservative Republicans in favor of a new breed of activists narrowly focused on issues like opposing vaccinations, supporting book bans, and promoting intolerance toward gay and trans individuals.
Which would lead, inevitably, to a significant decline in the prominence of the NDGOP, I'm afraid, because that faction is woefully out of step with the larger North Dakota electorate.
Again, it was Ed Schafer's leadership, and his style of happy-warrior politics, that made his party what it is today, though he, characteristically, doesn't give himself lone credit. He may have been the first through the gate, but he was followed by people like former governor and current Sen. Hoeven. And current Sen. Kevin Cramer, who got his start as tourism director under Ed Schafer. State Sen. Karen Krebsbach of Minot was already in office when Ed Schafer was elected, but he told me she was one of his earliest supporters.
Yet Hoeven was nearly denied the NDGOP's convention endorsement by the Trump-aligned faction. Cramer, who spoke for Hoeven at that convention, was roundly booed. Krebsbach's district party's executive committee immediately censured her at the completion of this legislative session, with her district chairman dismissing her as a "Democrat."
Ed Schafer can't even get elected to a relatively minor precinct-level leadership position. Public Service Commissioner Randy Christmann was also denied a seat on the District 33 NDGOP's executive committee despite his success as a statewide elected official, and having represented the district for 18 years in the state Senate.
Though a guy who posts on Facebook about chemtrail conspiracy theories did get a seat on that committee.
I want to be clear that nobody is entitled to an elected position. Everyone I mentioned above would be quick to say as much if asked. This isn't about what anybody is owed. This is about the leadership quality of North Dakota's dominant political party.
These people I've mentioned, and others who the MAGA-faction of the party has targeted, are some of the most successful members of the NDGOP, and they're being pushed out by a faction no longer interested in their style of politics.
What that means for those of you who aren't deeply involved in party politics, who are just rank-and-file voters who cast ballots on Election Day, is that the "R" on the ballot increasingly stands for something very different than it did even five years ago. There is a new faction, which is very close to taking over the NDGOP, which wants to take the Republican brand built up by people like Ed Schafer, and Hoeven, and others, and use it to further a very different style of politics.
We just came through a legislative session that was dominated by culture war issues like book bans, pronoun regulations, and anti-vaccine debates. If this shift in the NDGOP continues, that session and its priorities might be less an unhappy aberration than the new normal.