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McFeely: Why Rick Becker is a problem for Republicans

Maybe he won't sway a race in ND, but others like him in swing states could change political landscape

Rick Becker
Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck.
Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune
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FARGO — It's easy to dismiss Rick Becker as a fringe conservative with no chance to win statewide office in North Dakota. I know. I've done it myself.

Becker is a far-right Republican state legislator from Bismarck who's tried to rally other ultraconservative legislators behind him, forming what is known as the Bastiat Caucus. It's a splinter group in the GOP with hopes of keeping the state party aligned with "conservative principles."

The Bastiat's legislative success has been thin, but Becker's blend of libertarian-leaning staunch conservatism has a following in North Dakota. It's not enough to win the nomination for statewide office from the GOP, however. He's tried twice and has failed.

So that's that. Becker is forever relegated to also-ran status, right?

The problem with that thinking is that it's outdated, based on the two-party political model in which each party picks its candidates in a primary and voters then have a binary choice in the general election. They can vote for A or they can vote for B.

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What if they could vote for C?

And what if Becker was C?

Becker, or another person like him, might not win. But could he disrupt things enough to change the outcome of a race?

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Maybe not in North Dakota.

But maybe in Arizona. Or Georgia. Or Wisconsin. Or Pennsylvania. Or, be still my heart, Texas or Florida.

Swing states in which the majority in the U.S. Senate is decided.

In those places, Rick Becker is a problem for Republicans.

Or at least people like Rick Becker.

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We come to this conclusion based on a morsel from a memo pollster Dean Mitchell wrote to Democratic-NPL Party chairman Tyler Hogan regarding a survey Mitchell's firm, DFM Research, conducted for North Dakota Democrats. The memo was obtained by The Forum last week.

It dealt mostly with the U.S. House race between Republican incumbent Kelly Armstrong and independent newcomer Cara Mund. But it also included a tease about North Dakota's three-way U.S. Senate race between incumbent Republican John Hoeven, Democrat Katrina Christiansen and Becker.

Though no numbers are provided, the memo states: "The other statewide races are about where you would expect, although Rick Becker’s strong numbers make the three-way U.S. Senate race not a foregone conclusion."

I asked Mitchell about the U.S. Senate poll. He declined to comment.

But the sentence indicates Becker has some juice. The question is, how much?

Let's play with some numbers.

In his two successful bids for the Senate, Hoeven has grabbed about 75% of the vote.

Given that, for the sake of argument, let's give Christiansen 25% in the poll.

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That leaves the remaining 75% split between Hoeven, Becker and undecideds. If Becker is polling at, say, 20% that would leave 55% for Hoeven and undecideds. Let's say 10% are undecided, so Hoeven would be at 45%.

Given North Dakota's strongly Republican lean, let's assume the undecideds break 8-2 for Hoeven with Christiansen and Becker getting 1% each.

That would leave the numbers looking like this:

— Hoeven 53%

— Christiansen 26%

— Becker 21%

Becker would have peeled 21% away from Hoeven. The incumbent will still win comfortably in North Dakota, because he started at 75%.

But what if we're talking about Texas, where Republican Ted Cruz won with 50.9% in 2018? What if we're talking Florida, where Republican Rick Scott won with 50.1% in 2018? What if there's a split in the Republican Party in those places?

What if a Rick Becker in Texas or Florida decides he's had enough with the Republican Party machine? What if he takes 21% off the Republican total in those states? Or 10%?

What if you can't keep the Rick Beckers in the GOP tent?

That's what terrifies the GOP elites. If they don't assuage the far-right, and in some cases the outright loons, they risk a splinter and more election losses.

For Republicans, power trumps principle.

Becker likely doesn't have the support to sway elections in a nuclear-red state like North Dakota. But him going independent should ring an alarm for Republicans. Is the next step a third party? If ultraconservatives or MAGAs believe that's what needed, the political landscape changes — and that's terrible for the GOP.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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