Port: North Dakota Democrats opt for more of the same

The Democratic-NPL can't begin to win elections in a place like North Dakota without persuading quite a few Republican voters to flip, but how can they do that while simultaneously portraying Republicans as uncaring bigots?

PHOTO: ND Democratic-NPL 2018 State Convention
North Dakota Democratic Party Chairwoman Kylie Oversen. Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald

MINOT, N.D. — I was going to begin this column with a now-familiar recitation of all the ways the Democratic-NPL is all but irrelevant in the governance of our state, but I'm not sure I need to.

By now you get it, right? North Dakota's Democrats have been lost in the wilderness for nearly 30 years. Their statewide candidates are routinely routed. Their legislative candidates lose everywhere but a few blue pockets around the state's campuses and Native American communities.

The conventional political wisdom on this state of affairs is that the local Democrats are the victims of their national counterparts. Figures such as Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer , Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden are deeply unpopular in North Dakota, and that toxicity of brand is something most local Democratic candidates can't overcome.

I don't believe that.

I mean, it's an issue, but North Dakota voters are open to voting for Democrats. After all, Heidi Heitkamp won a Senate election in 2012. By an admittedly razor-thin margin, but still.


It wasn't all that long ago that Democratic candidates were routinely posting lopsided statewide election wins.

For a while, former Gov. John Hoeven was putting up wins with around 70% of the vote while Democrats such as former Sen. Kent Conrad were earning similar vote totals on the same ballot. That doesn't happen without a lot of North Dakotans — people who are still around, mind you — being perfectly comfortable voting for the right sort of Democratic candidates.

The problem is the Democratic-NPL hasn't been running the right candidates. They haven't been doing the right messaging. They could win, but they haven't, because they aren't offering voters here much to vote for.

Politics are cyclical, and at some point, you'd expect that to change, but that's not likely to be any time soon.

Even as the North Dakota Republican Party is embroiled in intraparty squabbling thanks to an energized faction of Trump loyalists intent on taking over the party, the Democratic-NPL is showing little inclination to take advantage of the situation.

The party recently selected new leadership — a new chair, specifically, to replace outgoing Chairwoman Kylie Oversen , who helped the Democratic-NPL to plumb new depths of irrelevance — and the choices suggest we should expect more of the same.


Patrick Hart , who earned just 32 percent of the% vote in a bid for auditor last year, is the new chairman. He beat out Shelley Lenz , who earned just over 25% of the vote running for governor.

Neither Hart nor Lenz seem to have a lock on what North Dakota's voters want to hear, as evidenced by their poor statewide showings, but Lenz, at least, seemed interested in acknowledging issues important to rural North Dakotans.

Hart, meanwhile, has emphasized how eager he is to do all the same things Oversen has been doing. "I look forward to the challenge of building on the foundation of the Dem-NPL that Chair Kylie Oversen built with the help of many others," he said in a news release issued by the party after his election.


Is he talking about rock bottom? Because that's where Oversen has left the party.

Zach Raknerud , who didn't quite reach 28% of the vote in the U.S. House race last year, also lost his bid DNC committeeman, and like Lenz has spoken about the need for Democrats to stop demonizing Republicans.


The Democratic-NPL can't begin to win elections in a place like North Dakota without persuading quite a few Republican voters to flip, but how can they do that while simultaneously portraying Republicans as uncaring bigots?

I'm a conservative, and while I don't think our liberal friends in the Democratic-NPL are evil, I'm also not eager to see them in charge of our state. Still, I think a more competitive Democratic-NPL would be good for our state's politics if only get the NDGOP focused on serious policymaking again.

Is Hart's leadership, which is all the more important given that Democrats have no statewide officeholders to help with messaging, going to be what turns the tide?

If it's just more of the bomb-throwing and rote progressive politicking we saw under Oversen the answer is "not likely."

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

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 Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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