As North Dakota Republicans swept statewide offices in Tuesday’s midterm election, the state Democratic-NPL party points to local wins and a positive outlook for 2020 after losing its only statewide seat.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, defeated Tuesday by Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer, is the only Democrat holding a statewide elected office in North Dakota. State Democrats did gain a few legislative seats in eastern districts, though Republicans maintain their super majority in the executive and legislative branches.
Scott McNeil, executive director of the Democratic-NPL, touted party victories in longtime House Majority Leader Al Carlson's defeat, Bismarck Sen. Erin Oban's re-election and Ruth Buffalo's win in District 27 in Fargo for a state House seat. Dem-NPL chair Warren Larson said Buffalo will be the first indigenous woman in the state Legislature elected from the party.
"We know that Heidi's loss was a difficult pill to swallow, but we're always forward-thinking, and that's what we're doing today, we're working toward 2020," Larson said.
McNeil said the party's focus is now on the 2019 legislative session.
"We're working closely with legislators to develop a legislative agenda to meet the needs of health care and the trade war, all those important issues to North Dakotans," Larson said.
He and McNeil highlighted Democratic-NPL nominees Josh Boschee and Kylie Oversen and their vote totals and visions. Though they lost to incumbents, McNeil said they closed the gap and pointed to the Boschee run, in which he lost by about 25,000 votes, against longtime Secretary of State Al Jaeger.
"That's something that's not to be discounted," McNeil said.
'Who we are'
Oversen — a former party chair and past lawmaker who ran for state tax commissioner — also noted the legislative wins and Carlson's defeat, but said there's much work to do.
“I think that there needs to be some reorganizing happening across the state within and outside the Democratic Party structure, starting community conversations, door-to-door conversations about who we are as North Dakotans and what we’d like to see in our elected officials," Oversen said.
Boschee — a two-term lawmaker from Fargo — said his eyes are on his legislative district for 2020, but said he hasn’t ruled out a future statewide run. A local focus may be the best strategy for Democrats, he said.
“It’s clear that our electorate has shifted a little bit more than I thought it would,” Boschee said. “We as a party should recalibrate and see how we can work with everyone in the state to get policy passed.”
Oban, approved by District 35 voters in Bismarck for a second state Senate term, said her focus is on her constituents, not her party.
"Honestly, I guess I haven't spent a lot of time talking to people in my political party. I spent the last 12 months talking to people in my district," said Oban, adding that she values retirement security, access to health care and especially education in identifying as a Democrat.
North Dakota House Minority Leader Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, offered similar thoughts on his Democratic identity: "Making sure that everyone has a shot whether you're from a low-income family that's always struggled to get by, or a family of means."
Democrats have generally lost their hold on statewide offices since Republican Gov. Ed Schafer’s election in 1992.
In 2010, the state’s longtime all-Democratic congressional team began to turn purple as longtime Rep. Earl Pomeroy lost re-election. Sens. Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad both retired by 2013, and Heitkamp won Conrad’s seat with fewer than 3,000 votes over Republican Rick Berg in 2012.
Now Republicans will comprise the state's congressional delegation for the first time in the modern era.
But for 2020 and 2022, state Democrats may be exiting their political winter, according to Jynette Larshus, political science coordinator at Minot State University.
“Even the races that were lost by Democrats, the margins were slimmer than anticipated in a lot of those races,” Larshus said of Tuesday's results.
A nationalization of races doesn’t help, she and Boschee each said. North Dakota’s U.S. Senate race hit the national spotlight for its outcome to affect the balance of power in the U.S. Senate. Millions of dollars flowed into the race, with Heitkamp raising more than $27 million of the $32 million between her and Cramer.
Nevertheless, North Dakota Democratic candidates were “motivated and revitalized” this time around, according to Larshus.
“They made some headway,” she said.
Mark Jendrysik, professor of political science and public administration at the University of North Dakota, said Democrats should find candidates for every race, focus on local elections and look for new faces.
Grassroots enthusiasm and “the boring work” of door knocking and gathering volunteers are important, too, he added.
“It’s very difficult to recruit people, contest all the races. To find viable candidates for statewide offices is very hard," Jendrysik said.
Mock said Democrats should remain positive and optimistic despite losses.
“Once the ballots are cast and counted, I hope that we’re all just as committed to that mission the day after the election as the day we sought that office,” he said.