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Zaleski: Republicans better pay attention

Zaleski writes, "Becker, up to now an appropriately obscure legislator with an undistinguished record, has emerged as leader of a movement that has evolved from a noisome sideshow into a purposefully divisive political threat."

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Despite its dominance, the North Dakota Republican Party is not in good health. While all the routine indicators – fundraising and winning elections, for example – look great, GOP leadership is not doing enough to excise a cancer that threatens to fracture the party’s traditional base. The grassroots power of that cancer was on display at the party endorsing convention a few days ago in Bismarck. It wasn’t pretty. If it wasn’t instructive for establishment Republican leaders, then they are playing a head-in-the-sand game that, in time, they will lose.

Loosely defined, the factions can be identified as the Sen. John Hoeven mainstream Republicans and the Rick Becker faux Republicans. Hoeven, a former governor and incumbent two-term U.S. senator, is among the most popular politicians in the state’s history. State Rep. Becker, founder of the libertarian-leaning Bastiat Caucus, has parlayed his insufferable ego into a political movement that seems intent on undermining 30 years of Republican gains at the polls, and on minimizing a record of mostly sound state governance.

Becker challenged Hoeven for the Senate nomination, lost, but only by 187 votes in a convention that turned out a record number of delegates. In other words, Becker came close to wresting the endorsement from an effective and popular senator (who had the endorsement of former president Donald Trump), at an allegedly Republican gathering in which nearly half the delegates were aligned with Becker’s gang.

This is no small matter for Republicans. Hoeven has been in public office for two decades. He inhabits the best of all possible political realms: he’s a household name. Becker, up to now an appropriately obscure legislator with an undistinguished record, has emerged as leader of a movement that has evolved from a noisome sideshow into a purposefully divisive political threat.

The show of force at the state convention by the Becker cabal was no fluke. In order to pack the session with his supporters, significant spade work was done in local districts. His people turned out at those meetings in numbers sufficient to elect delegates of his ilk: that is, activists who were willing, eager even, to deny the party’s endorsement to a conservative two-term senator. Dozens of local delegate-selection meetings were hijacked by Becker’s Bastiats. Which suggests apathy among establishment Republicans. Or was it reluctance to be abused by the ill-mannered Becker swarm?

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If the Beckerites were about constructive change, their ascendancy would be welcome. But they are not builders. They sow discord and division. They rely on intimidation and misinformation to advance an agenda that in most of its aims is anathema to North Dakota’s priorities and values.

The campaign against Sen. Hoeven made headlines, but the extremists’ activities in local elections should be of more concern. They are attempting – and succeeding in some places – to get onto school boards, city councils and into the Legislature where they seed disruption and ply contumelious tactics to push their blinkered ideology. Republicans, who hold nearly all the political power in the state, had better pay attention and act. If they do not, the party will be appropriated by a gaggle of churlish, wrong-headed, but highly motivated obstructionists. As the recent convention demonstrated, it’s happening.

Zaleski retired in 2017 after 30 years as The Forum’s editorial page editor. He is the author of a new history of Forum Communications Company . Contact him at jzaleski@forumcomm.com or 701-241-5521 or 701-566-3576.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.

READ MORE FROM JACK ZALESKI
Columnist Jack Zaleski writes about the status of the Republican and Democratic Parties in North Dakota.

Opinion by Jack Zaleski
Zaleski retired in 2017 after 30 years as The Forum’s editorial page editor. He is author of a new history of Forum Communications Co. Contact him at jzaleski@forumcomm.com or 701-241-5521 or 701-566-3576.
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