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Port: North Dakota Democrats fail to find even a single candidate in 15 legislative districts

There has been a lot of talk about how the Democratic-NPL is at low-ebb, but looking at how things stand for them heading into the 2022 campaign season, it seems very possible, and even likely, that things can get worse for them.

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The North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party endorsed a handful of candidates for statewide office on Saturday, March 26, 2022, including (from left) Katrina Christiansen for U.S. Senate, Mark Haugen for U.S. House, Finton Dooley for agriculture commissioner and Trygve Hammer for Public Service Commission.
Kyle Martin / The Forum
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MINOT, N.D. — "I’ve been recruiting candidates for office for well over 20 years," my friend Jamie Selzler, a former executive director for the North Dakota Democratic-NPL and once upon a time my colleague in the Minot paperboy racket, wrote in a recent letter to the editor .

He says his party is facing strong headwinds in finding candidates in our state than ever before.

"This is the hardest I’ve ever seen it trying to help someone agree to run for office. And second place isn’t even close," he wrote.

Boy, he wasn't kidding.

The filing deadline for candidates to make the June primary ballot was earlier this week. We now have a clear picture of who is running for which office in the legislative races, and it's a grim outlook for the Democrats.

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There are 35 legislative districts on the ballot this cycle (counting the new subdistricts on their own). Only 19 will feature competitive races between Republican and Democratic candidates.

Statewide, the Democrats left 15 legislative districts, or about 42% of the districts on the ballot, without a candidate.

Each of these districts, with the exception of the subdistricts, has a senator and two representatives (except for the subdistricts which obviously have only a single representative).

Democrats will have no candidates for the Legislature in districts 1, 4b, 5, 7, 8, 13, 17, 23, 26, 33, 36, 37, 39, 45, 47.

By contrast, Republicans left just one district, north Fargo's very liberal District 21, without candidates.

Here's how that looks on a map (made by retiring state Sen. Ray Holmberg of Grand Forks, who was kind enough to share it with me).

North Dakota 2022 contested races
A North Dakota legislative district map showing contested races in the 2022 election.
Created by Sen. Ray Holmberg and used with permission

Normally we'd only see odd-numbered legislative districts on the ballot, but this was a redistricting year, and some of the even-numbered districts saw enough change in that process that the law required they be on the ballot this year too.

Also, many of these districts do have competitive intraparty competitions (Republicans taking on Republicans, for example), but that will be a topic for another column.

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For now, let's focus on the Democrats and their struggles to find candidates. Clearly, they have a problem in western North Dakota. That's not news. But even in many of the districts where they've found candidates, they're unlikely to win because those candidates won't be very competitive.

And the party was facing headwinds even before candidate recruitment efforts started. The Democrats hold just 21 of the Legislature's 141 seats (7 in the Senate, 14 in the House) and all but one of them are on the ballot this cycle.

Only Rep. Corey Mock, a Grand Forks Democrat, isn't facing re-election.

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Ben Hanson, a candidate for the Cass County Commission, and Sen. Kevin Cramer join this episode of Plain Talk.

Nor will the Democrats be getting much help from the top of their ticket. While they did find candidates for every statewide race but one — Republican Tax Commissioner Brian Kroshus will run unopposed — those candidates are not exactly household names and will have all they can handle trying to unseat the popular Republican incumbents they're squaring off against, let alone try to help down-ballot Democrats.

Senate candidate Katrina Christiansen and House candidate Mark Haugen are both interesting candidates and serious candidates, but they're unlikely to get a lot of traction. Public Service Commission candidate Trygve Hammer falls into that same category.

The rest of the Democratic ticket are place fillers. Warm bodies drafted into those races so the Democrats could avoid the embarrassment of even more unfilled races.

There has been a lot of talk about how the Democratic-NPL is at low-ebb, but looking at how things stand for them heading into the 2022 campaign season, it seems very possible, and even likely, that things can get worse for them.

Is this a good thing? Selzler says no.

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"This should bother all of us," he wrote in his letter. "When good, smart, competent citizens are (understandably) fearful of putting their names on the line, we’re left with a smaller number of people involved because they genuinely care about making our communities better."

I tend to agree. I'm a conservative, with little interest in electing left-of-center candidates, but I do think any candidate, whatever their partisan affiliations or ideology, ought to have to earn the office they're running for.

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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