FARGO — North Dakota, dubbed a "red state" for its tendency to vote Republican, turned even more crimson on Tuesday, Nov. 6, when Kevin Cramer won the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Heidi Heitkamp.
With that change, all statewide offices as well as all of North Dakota's congressional offices will soon be held by Republicans, the first time that has been the case in the modern era and perhaps in the entire history of the state, according to Jack Zaleski, retired editorial page editor for The Forum and a longtime watcher of politics in North Dakota.
It wasn't always so.
For much of the state's history, Democrats were regularly elected to statewide offices, Zaleski said.
That is is until 1992, when Ed Schafer was elected governor and things began to change in a major way, Zaleski said.
According to Zaleski, Schafer's victory over Democrat Nicholas Spaeth came on the heels of a schism in the Democratic Party that resulted from infighting between Spaeth, who had been North Dakota's attorney general, and William Heigaard, whom Spaeth defeated in the 1992 primary election to become the Democratic candidate for governor that year.
Zaleski said Schafer became a hero to the Republican Party and a mentor to many up-and-coming Republicans.
Meanwhile, he said, the Democratic party never really recovered from the self-inflicted wounds it suffered as a result of the Spaeth-Heigaard grudge match.
Zaleski said that while Republicans focused on getting candidates elected to offices at all levels of government, Democrats seemed content with what for many years was a lock on North Dakota's congressional delegation.
Heitkamp's defeat Tuesday night put an end to Democrat success in that arena, and the state's overall shift to one-party domination may continue to deepen, according to Lloyd Omdahl, a former Democratic lieutenant governor of North Dakota and a former professor of political science at the University of North Dakota.
While Zaleski identified 1992 as a watershed moment for Republicans, Omdahl said the party's fortunes began to brighten long before then.
He said based on research he has done using data from presidential elections, North Dakota voters revealed a distinct shift toward conservative candidates between the years 1956 and 1976, a trend he suspects has continued to this day and likely will continue for some time to come.
The position Republicans enjoy today, with their soon-to-be-realized monopoly of statewide and congressional offices, is one Democrats have never held in North Dakota going back to 1894, said Al Jaeger, a Republican who on Tuesday won his eighth term as North Dakota's secretary of state.
Jaeger said state records show Democrats have never held a monopoly on statewide offices since 1894 due to the fact a Republican became state auditor that year and a Republican has held the office ever since.
Jaeger, who was first elected secretary of state in 1992, said he didn't have an answer as to why Republicans have come to dominate North Dakota's statewide politics since the early 1990s, but he offered one possibility.
"I like to think it's because of the quality of the candidates we have had," Jaeger said.
Zaleski said one thing possibly contributing to Republican success has been the change in the agricultural landscape of North Dakota over the years.
In the past, he said, Democratic candidates enjoyed greater support from rural areas that at the time were made up of relatively small farms.
As farms grew, he said, farmers began to identify more with the the corporate model of running a business and subsequently became more conservative regarding things like government regulation.
At the same time, Zaleski said, the Republican Party became adept at alienating the Democratic Party from customary sources of support.
"Republicans have been brilliant at characterizing the Democrats as an East and West Coast elitist party and as a result they lost the support, over time, of their traditional Democratic base — small farmers, blue-collar, Rust Belt people, working-class Americans," Zaleski said.