Port: Is 2020 finally the year North Dakota Democrats turn it all around?

If the Democrats really felt like Republicans were vulnerable this cycle, you'd expect to see candidates lining up, and that's just not happening.

ND Democratic-NPL State Convention
Former Vice President Joe Biden shows his support for Sen. Heidi Heitkamp's re-election campaign at the Dem-NPL state convention in Grand Forks in March 2018. Forum News Service file photo

MINOT, N.D. -- Is this the year North Dakota Democrats finally turn a corner and begin a long march back into political relevance?

It could be.

It sure seems like it should be.

Since the tides of public opinion tend to ebb and flow, politics are a cyclical thing. For our state's Democrats, the tide can't go out much farther.

They currently hold just 10 of 47 seats in the state Senate, and only 15 of 94 seats in the state House.


They hold not a single state-level executive-branch office and haven't since 2012 (the Superintendent of Public Schools is technically a non-partisan position, but in practice, Democrats and Republicans edorse candidates for the office).

Thanks to former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp's loss in 2018, the North Dakota Democrats have no incumbents in any of the state and federal offices elected on the statewide ballot for the first time since 1958.

Or perhaps 1916, depending on how you count the Nonpartisan League, which was founded by a socialist but began running its slate of candidates as Republicans before eventually merging with the state Democratic party.

However you do the math, this has to be rock bottom, right? Since they can't do much worse, where else do Democrats have to go but up?

It's been a tough couple of years for agriculture in North Dakota, and historically the Democrats have been pretty good at turning that sort of anxiety into votes.

In 2018, North Dakota voters approved a ballot measure amending the state constitution to create new ethics rules and an ethics commission. Republicans spoke out against the initiative, but it passed anyway, signaling that while most voters in the state may not be ready to vote against Republicans, there is a growing feeling that those in power have grown a bit too comfortable with it.

And then there's President Donald Trump. He won North Dakota handily in 2016, with over 63% of the vote, but his first term has been chaotic, and as I write this, the Senate is debating whether or not to remove him from office.

Will that help or hurt Trump and down-ballot Republicans in North Dakota when they go to vote later this year?


Either way, it seems Democrats have a real opportunity in front of them. Can they capitalize?

I expect Democrats will likely pick up some legislative seats.

Because, again, it's not like they can do much worse, and the NDGOP picked up some seats in some fairly blue districts during the 2016 Trump wave, which may be tough for them to hold.

Beyond that, I don't expect Democrats to accomplish much in 2020. They have nobody elected to federal office, which is an essential conduit for national political money. Democrats traditionally don't raise nearly as much money from North Dakotans as the NDGOP does. Without an elected member of their party bringing in national dollars, the party may not have much of a budget this cycle.

This may be why the rumor mill about who might run for Democrats on the statewide ballot is pretty much standing still. Outside of persistent rumors about Fargo-area state Representative Ruth Buffalo possibly challenging first-term incumbent Congressman Kelly Armstrong, I have heard nothing about potential statewide Democratic candidates in 2020.

If the Democrats felt like Republicans were vulnerable this cycle, you'd expect to see candidates lining up, and that's just not happening.

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Rob Port, founder of, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Plain Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.

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 Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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