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Port: NDGOP has convention contention as executive committee votes to cancel

Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney welcomes delegates to the NDGOP convention Saturday, April 2, 2016 in Fargo.Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney welcomes delegates to the NDGOP convention Saturday, April 2, 2016 in Fargo.Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
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MINOT, N.D. — If coronavirus weren't a thing right now, the North Dakota Republican Party would be holding their state convention next weekend, March 27 - 28, in Bismarck.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 is a very real thing, and the NDGOP is grappling with what to do.

And, since we're talking about a political party, political considerations are getting in the way.

The North Dakota Democrats have already canceled their convention.

Meanwhile, the Republicans, who can typically count on a delegate count in the 1,600 to 1,800 range in a presidential election year, don't even have 1,000 signed up yet for a convention that, as I write this, is still technically scheduled to happen.

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There are real concerns in the party that, thanks to delegates who are rightly fearful of attending a large event, the coronavirus might have a more significant influence over who gets the party's endorsement than the NDGOP activists from across the state.

Tonight the NDGOP's executive committee met and voted to cancel the convention. Chairman Rick Berg told me the vote of the 14-member committee, made up of party leaders and top Republican officeholders, was "nearly unanimous," but it's also not necessarily the final word on the subject.

"Like we've said all along, we're going to take the lead from the CDC and the state health department," Berg told me tonight. "The president has said we should avoid groups of more than 10 people, and for the next eight weeks to stay away from groups of 50 people. It became kind of self-evident that we couldn't meet for the convention on March 28."

The problem is, as Berg pointed out to me along with other Republicans familiar with the matter but unauthorized to speak for the party, a decision to cancel the convention should come from the state committee.

NDGOP bylaws require the state committee be given 15 days notice for any rule changes, and that would put any decision past the date when the convention is supposed to be held.

As it stands now, the executive committee is going to pass their recommendation on to the state committee.

What will happen then? "Stay tuned," Berg told me, though he contends that the executive committee has the authority to cancel the convention.

Adding some intrigue to the situation is that the NDGOP does have contested races this year. Rep. Dan Johnson, a lawmaker from Kathryn and a member of a faction of the NDGOP called the Bastiat Caucus, is facing off with Fargo Rep. Thomas Beadle in the treasurer race.

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Charles Tuttle, a Minot resident with support among Bastiats ( and a checkered personal history ), is in the race for the superintendent endorsement against incumbent Kirsten Baesler (who has been in the headlines of late with her own personal problems). Brandt Dick, a superintendent from Underwood, is also in that race .

The Bastiats, specifically, are pushing hard to hold a statewide convention despite the recommendations of health officials.

Rep. Rick Becker, a founder of the Bastiat Caucus and a surgeon, posted his support on Facebook for a sort of virtual convention, at least:

Whatever else the Bastiats are, they're well organized and know how to work a convention. They also represent the far-right wing of the NDGOP. Their candidates are more likely to be successful at a partisan convention than in an open, statewide vote.

Per Berg, leaving the matter to a statewide vote is what the executive committee wants, because they just don't feel like they have enough time to organize any sort of remote voting effectively.

"How do we conduct a remote convention or virtual voting? How do we do it in a way that's transparent and has a lot of integrity? At this point, the decision was just to have all the constitutional offices go to the primary," he said.

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"Tomorrow at 5:15 pm, we'll have the full committee, which is made up of all the district chairmen. Basically, it will be a recommendation to them and having them weigh in on the issue. Technically the executive committee does have the authority, but we want to bring the rest of the state committee in as well," he continued.

That makes sense to me. I'd prefer that the NDGOP (and the Democrats and every other damn thing, for that matter) go about business as usual.

Like it or not, things aren't business as usual right now. The NDGOP isn't set up to do remote voting — not on as short a timeline as they have available to them since the deadline for the June primary ballot is April 6.

The state of North Dakota, however, has a well-established system for allowing votes by way of an absentee ballot, meaning anyone who wants to vote in June can do so without having to appear at a polling location.

The executive committee made the right call. Whether the full state committee agrees, given the aforementioned political situation, is anyone's guess.

To comment on this article, visit www.sayanythingblog.com

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at rport@forumcomm.com .

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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