'Nastiness' of North Dakota governor's race could be worse, observers say

'Nastiness' of North Dakota governor's race could be worse, observers say


The battle for one of North Dakota's U.S. Senate seats didn't end when former Gov. William Langer was elected in 1940.

When Langer, a Republican, showed up in the Washington, D.C., to be sworn in early 1941, he was informed that a group of North Dakotan citizens had petitioned for him to be denied the seat. They cited his "financial misconduct" as governor for grounds for denial, and a majority of committee members reviewing Langer's actions later agreed.

"The minority warned against allowing the Senate to be used by a winner's opponents to overturn the results of a lawful election," a biography on the Senate's website stated. "In its requirements for election to the Senate, they noted, the Constitution makes no reference to moral purity."

More than two years after he won the 1940 election, however, the full Senate voted to seat Langer.

Heated electoral politics are nothing new, and North Dakota's history is filled with examples of candidates sparring over policy and personal lives.

Some say the battle between leading Republican candidates for governor, Fargo businessman Doug Burgum and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, has become "nasty," a term that's even used by a Stenehjem television ad. The lead-up to the June 14 primary election has seen the candidates trade barbs over the Stenehjem's alleged support of the Affordable Care Act and Burgum's involvement in angel fund tax credits.

"It's just too bad that we've gotten this way in North Dakota politics," state Rep. Roscoe Streyle, a Minot Republican who is supporting Stenehjem, said on the What's on Your Mind radio show last month regarding Burgum's television ads. "I have never seen anything so dishonest and nasty."

But even modern political history in North Dakota includes plenty of controversy during election season. There was Kevin Cramer's ad attacking former U.S. Rep. Earl Pomeroy, a Democrat, over parental notification on abortion, accusations of private detectives snooping into congressional candidates' personal lives and claims that former Gov. Ed Schafer, a Republican, spent too much time scuba diving in Mexico.

"I don't think it is terribly unusual," Bruce Gjovig, a Grand Forks resident who was a delegate to this year's North Dakota Republican convention, said of the current governor's race. "Candidates try to push the negatives up on the other candidate that they're opposing, and they also try to sell themselves."

Mike Jacobs, the former publisher of the Grand Forks newspaper who now writes a weekly political column, agreed that the tone of this election cycle is "not unprecedented and not as personal in the sense of going after the character of somebody as campaigns in the past."

"We don't see Burgum or Stenehjem going after the moral character of the other one," he added.

Gjovig said that may have to do with voters' preferences that campaigns be based on the issues rather than personal lives.

"You can garner a lot of sympathy for a candidate by attacking them unfairly," he said.


One memorable battle was the Democratic primary race in 1992 between former Sen. William Heigaard and then-Attorney General Nicholas Spaeth. Heigaard won the party's endorsement for governor, but Spaeth won the primary election.

Just days before the general election between Spaeth and Schafer, the Republican candidate at the time, Heigaard declined to even say he was voting for his party's nominee, according to an Associated Press report. Though he said he wasn't bitter over the primary defeat, Heigaard added there had been "substantial damage" done to the party over the battle.

A Democrat hasn't held the governor's office since.

Bob Valeu, former Democratic-NPL Party chairman, said the party has struggled to recover from the 1992 election. He sees similarities between what happen to Democrats then and Republicans now.

"I think it will create a division within the (Republican) party," Valeu said.

State Rep. Marvin Nelson, a Democrat from Rolla, is running uncontested in the June primary and will move on to the general election.

For his part, Burgum, who lost the Republican endorsement to Stenehjem at the state GOP convention, isn't worried about hurting fellow Republicans in the general election later this year. He plans on winning in June and supporting the party's candidates.

But Stenehjem questioned how Burgum would govern after running a "negative campaign."

Cramer, a member of the U.S. House who skipped the Republican endorsing convention and won the primary election in 2012, doesn't think the current race for governor will hurt the party.

"In my view, what we're going to see on primary election day is probably the largest Republican turnout in years, if not ever," he said. "And that's party building."

On the issues

Despite Stenehjem's call for Burgum to adhere to the "11th commandment," the doctrine widely attributed to Ronald Reagan that Republicans don't speak ill of other Republicans, Burgum said he's well in-bounds to point to Stenehjem's record in office. He also cited a Stenehjem ad that claims Burgum will pay or say anything to become governor as an example of "name-calling."

"I didn't get into politics thinking that wasn't going to happen," Burgum said.

Stenehjem said he hears from voters who want candidates to talk about themselves rather than "dragging down the other candidate." He called claims in Burgum's ads "demonstrably untrue," and Burgum has said he strongly believes in the angel fund goals.

Despite that back-and-forth, Valeu said Burgum and Stenehjem largely have tried to stay on the issues. That's more than he can say for the presidential race, where presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump has used his Twitter account to call his opponents lightweights and liars, among other labels.

Valeu said North Dakota has largely avoided that brand of politics because people here have a "better sense of fairness."

But Jacobs pushed back against the notion of "North Dakota nice." He said if public officials here were caught doing more questionable things, the nasty campaigns would follow.

"By and large, there's not a lot of shenanigans going on," he said. "I think North Dakotans are perfectly capable of being nasty and have been nasty in the past."


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