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Port: Political conventions lie, or why Rick Becker's 44% doesn't matter as much as you think it does

A Republican winning at an NDGOP convention, be it statewide or local, is a bit like a baseball team being the champion of the spring training league. It's not a bad thing. It also doesn't mean much.

over_hoeven.jpeg
A delegate at the North Dakota Republican Party state convention holds up a sign advocating against Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., at the Bismarck Event Center on Saturday, April 2, 2022.
Kyle Martin / The Forum
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MINOT, N.D. — Do you remember who Paul Sorum is?

It would not surprise me if you didn't. Sorum is barely a footnote in the history of North Dakota politics, but about a decade ago he was raising a lot of eyebrows.

In 2010 he ran for the U.S. Senate, challenging, for the NDGOP's endorsement, then-Gov. John Hoeven, who was fresh off winning a third gubernatorial race in a landslide and was pursuing his first term in Congress.

Sorum surprised a lot of observers by getting 21% of the delegate vote. The pundits and gossips were talking about a new conservative insurgency in the party.

In 2012 Sorum challenged another popular Republican incumbent. This time it was Jack Dalrymple, who had moved from lieutenant governor to governor when Hoeven was elected to the Senate and was, that year, running for a full four-year term of his own.

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Sorum made chins wag again by earning 29% of the delegate vote at the state convention.

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I bring up Sorum, because there are a lot of hot takes floating around about state Rep. Rick Becker getting 44% of the delegate vote against Hoeven at the NDGOP's most recent convention. In a vacuum, that outcome seems really significant.

To be sure, it's not nothing, but we should be careful about not reading too much into Becker's convention performance.

Because political conventions lie. They mislead. They portend political trends that often don't pan out.

Let's go back to the example of Mr. Sorum. In 2012, perhaps emboldened by his 29% showing at the convention against a popular incumbent endorsed by the state's Republican establishment, Sorum chose to campaign on the statewide ballot.

He ran as an independent.

He got less than 2% of the vote .

In 2016 he ran for the NDGOP's nomination for governor on the June primary ballot. Again, he got less than 2%, or 2,164 votes statewide out of more than 114,000 total ballots cast.

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Sorum, like Becker, had a degree of popularity among the voters who show up to the NDGOP's state conventions, but that popularity didn't translate to the statewide ballot.

You can argue that Becker is leading a movement that is far more organized than Sorum's was, and you'd be right. You can argue that Becker has a better political resume, too, having served more than a decade in the state legislature, and that is also a fair point.

Yet there's a reason why Becker made it clear, both at the NDGOP convention and before it, that he wouldn't campaign to the June primary.

Paul Sorum
Paul Sorum, who was an unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2010, and for governor in 2012.
File Photo

There's a reason why his supporters attempted an arcane rule change to make the convention endorsement superior to the June primary vote in direct contradiction of state law.

The reason isn't that Becker is humble in his ambitions. No man who portrays himself as a coloring book superhero can be accused of humility.

No, the reason is that Becker's performance in the June primary would likely shatter the illusion of his statewide popularity.

That's the mistake Sorum made. Had he refrained from taking his campaigns to the statewide ballot, he could have, based on his relatively strong showings at NDGOP conventions, maintained the fairy tale of his popularity.

Becker, who is a savvier politician than Sorum, isn't going to make the same mistake.

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The NDGOP's 2022 state convention set a party record for delegates at just over 2,300. Yet even that record-setting turnout is just barely 2% of the more than 107,000 ballots by Republicans in the 2020 gubernatorial primary.

There is a lot of doubt among North Dakota Republicans about the utility of endorsing conventions, and while some, notably Mr. Becker and his supporters, cast that doubt as a product of the "establishment" looking down their noses and rank-and-file Republicans, the truth is those doubts are based on the convention outcomes which are so often out of step with what the larger Republican electorate in North Dakota wants.

The same year Sorum went from getting 29% of the delegate vote at the convention to just 2% of the primary vote, Kevin Cramer beat convention-endorsed candidate Brian Kalk in the NDGOP's House primary.

In 2016, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem easily won the NDGOP's gubernatorial endorsement at the convention, but lost to Gov. Doug Burgum in a landslide on the June ballot .

A Republican winning at an NDGOP convention, be it statewide or local, is a bit like a baseball team being the champion of the spring training league.

It's not a bad thing.

It also doesn't mean much.

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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