While he knows his candidacy to challenge Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., for the party’s nomination is a long shot, Dustin Peyer says competition within the party ranks has been lacking for years and will help reinvigorate the base.

“We had 64 percent of the people who voted in the presidential caucus voted for Bernie Sanders,” said Peyer, a 32-year-old wildlands firefighter from Driscoll. 

The type of energy level among the party briefly sparked by the Sanders campaign last year against Hillary Clinton in North Dakota is badly needed if the party is to rebuild, according to Peyer.

“I want to get those people to come back to convention,” he said.

Peyer pointed to the vote earlier this month for state Democratic-NPL party chair: Kylie Oversen won a second term as chairwoman but had four challengers, taking 60 of 110 votes.

Peyer said “110 people wouldn’t have shown up” if there was no competition.

That’s where his candidacy comes in, said Peyer, adding that a lack of competition will lead to an uninspired state convention and won’t rally the base at all.

Peyer pointed to the party's net loss of 10 state House seats and six in the Senate. Not a single candidate on the statewide ticket earned even 30 percent of the vote in November.

Peyer ran for District 28 state Senate on the Democratic-NPL Party ticket in 2016, earning 16.7 percent of the vote against Republican Sen. Robert Erbele, of Lehr.

Heitkamp had a brief comment provided by staff that centered on her work in the Senate rather than the 2018 campaign.

“My focus is on getting results for North Dakota and standing up for working families by bringing Democrats and Republicans together to find solutions for our state,” said Heitkamp, who has not formally announced a campaign for a second term but is expected to run. Her first quarter 2017 campaign finance report with the Federal Election Commission shows more than $1.6 million raised through March 31.

The seat she holds is a priority target for the Republicans next year, one of a handful of Democratic-held seats in Republican voting states. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., is the most prominent rumored opponent, though he also hasn’t announced his intentions for 2018.

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Hitting final stretch

Fewer than 20 bills were being ironed out in conference committee heading into Friday’s day of legislative work, with fewer than three dozen remaining to be voted on overall.

North Dakota Legislative Council numbers through the end of Thursday put the number of total bills awaiting final votes at 35. Of these, 19 bills remained in conference committee.

Through these bills, lawmakers will have to close a budget gap of $567.8 million, with leadership aiming to leave town with at least some buffer in the form of an ending fund balance.

“We will do all amendments requested,” North Dakota Legislative Council Director Jim Smith said of this weekend’s work to set the table for next week.

After realizing they couldn’t finish up this week, members of the Republican leadership said they’ll return next week to complete the session as quickly as possible. Senate leadership is pushing for a Tuesday finish, though House leadership said it could be later.

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(Reach Nick Smith at 701-250-8255 or 701-223-8482 or at nick.smith@bismarcktribune.com.)