On Nov. 2, 2010, Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., was hours away from the end of his political career. He didn't know it for sure yet — he was clinging to a slim hope he might survive — but he could feel that the political tides, turning in North Dakota for decades, might finally drag him under. Before results came in, he wrote a concession speech.
That night, Pomeroy sat with his staff in a Fargo hotel room and watched television reporters count the votes. Western North Dakota, as they'd expected, was looking red. But Cass County trickled in with less support than he'd like. Grand Forks and Barnes were looking anemic, too.
Pomeroy, after 18 years in Congress, had seen enough. He practiced the speech he'd written a few times; he wanted, he said in a July interview, to make sure he didn't choke up. Then he went downstairs and delivered it.
Just a short walk away, at another Fargo hotel, Rick Berg’s night was going well. The former state House majority leader — and now a GOP congressman-elect — was crowing about the sudden, seismic shift in North Dakota and national politics that was sweeping him into office.
"Two years ago, people wanted change,” Berg told the crowd. “But what they wanted was for Washington to change."
They got their wish. Pomeroy's departure meant that, for the first time in three decades, the state's lone congressman wouldn't be a Democrat. And across the country, the tea party revolution was sweeping Democrats away. The GOP would pick up 63 U.S. House seats — the biggest power shift in congressional midterm elections in generations.
It’s hard to pick a date that the Democratic-NPL’s golden years ended. One answer might be in the early 1990s, when the governorship slipped away. In an interview, former Sen. Byron Dorgan called Ed Schafer’s 1992 win a watershed: It meant that the GOP could suddenly control the flow of political appointees and build a political bench — ensuring they’d have better candidates in elections to come.
Another moment might be as late as 2018, when Sen. Heidi Heitkamp lost to then-GOP Rep. Kevin Cramer, surrendering the party’s last statewide office. But by then, the state had become so red that it became hard to imagine when there might be another statewide Democrat again.
This is the fifth and final installment in a series produced by Forum News Service and the North Dakota Newspaper Association Education Foundation, exploring North Dakota’s political history. The series has charted the course nearly from statehood, beginning with the rise of the Nonpartisan League — a prairie political rebellion built on farmers’ grievances — through the Depression years, the New Deal, the Cold War arrival of Air Force bases and the discovery of the state’s vast oil reserves.
Each of those has had a profound effect on state politics. Pomeroy, looking back on his career, sees his own undoing in the political fight over the Affordable Care Act — the health care law that the 2010 election was nominally about — but knows there was more on the ballot.
“Nothing stays the same, and so North Dakota's economy changes,” Pomeroy said — like farms getting bigger, smaller towns withering and the arrival of an oil industry reshaping state politics. The knockout round came in 2010, but the GOP had been punching stronger for years.
That’s also true of state demographics, which Pomeroy points out are tending more and more into an overlap with the core Republican base: whiter than the rest of the country — with fewer college graduates but more modest incomes — and oftentimes at church on Sundays.
“I think the Republican Party is going to be in pretty good shape for a pretty good while given its alignment with that demographic base,” Pomeroy said.
From Cass County to Bismarck
But while it might be hard to pinpoint where the Democratic-NPL’s golden age ended, it’s a lot easier to pick when it started. Probably the best answer is the election of Gov. Bill Guy in 1960 — just a few years after the Democratic Party and the long-time populist Nonpartisan League merged.
Guy came to power after an early career as a Cass County farmer. He was a school board member, then he was a failed legislative candidate — multiple times, in fact — before a steep and sudden rise to high office. He was elected to the state House in 1958; he became governor in 1960 when he won just a little less than 50% of the vote, beating out his GOP rival by a little less than 5 points.
And as governor, he was recognized as a modernizer. An obituary from 2013 quotes an effusive bunch of colleagues, including Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who called him a man who “brought us into the 20th Century.” Guy helped build the deep Democratic bench that would rule the state for years, too — appointing Dorgan, the future senator, as Tax Commissioner. Democrats’ success would continue for years, through two more Democratic governors.
“I have no idea why he selected a 26-year-old to run a state agency," Dorgan said. "I remember him very well, and I spent time with him in the car driving to events, other events in the state. I sat in his cabinet meetings. He was just very very smart, and very interested in a wide-ranging set of issues, including water policy. People knew that he was a very active, very interesting man who was going to do things that could make a difference and be positive for North Dakotans."
There are dozens of ways to explain the party’s success and its eventual unraveling, which is precisely what makes it so hard to map out. While it’s true that North Dakota changed — with farms getting bigger and oil money and Air Force bases reshaping the state — the rest of the world was changing, too.
Sen. Cramer, the man who finally defeated the last Democratic incumbent in 2018, puts Democrats’ failures in less flattering terms. In his retelling, the party couldn’t read the economic tea leaves, and crucially lost rural areas as farms got bigger by backing the wrong farm policies.
(But it’s clearly a cultural matter, too, as the Democratic Party becomes more diverse and urban and the GOP remains largely white and increasingly rural. Cramer, for example, pokes fun at Democratic New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s veganism as “not relatable”)
The rise of conservative media has helped shift the loyalties of small-town America, and political alignment is now as much urban-rural as have vs. have-not. Politics are more combative, especially after the 1990s House speakership of Newt Gingrich. And the racial demographics of the U.S. are shifting quickly, heightening some white voters’ deep-seated racist anxieties.
But there’s something almost cyclical to it though, too. Mark Jendrysik, a UND political scientist, points out that, on a long enough time scale, stretching back beyond the Democrats’ golden years, the state is reverting to a deeply Republican past.
"You could argue what's happened in the last decade, 20 years, is a reassertion of the pattern of North Dakota politics, where the Republicans are dominant, and whatever other party exists is marginal at best,” Jendrysik said. And the North Dakota Democrats of today are marginal at best, he said, without the on-the-ground organization or the high-profile leaders they need to be effective at the state level.
"Which is unfortunate,” he said, “Because that's what keeps the majority party on its toes."
For now, the Democratic-NPL is wandering in the wilderness, its statewide candidates typically doomed to landslide losses. But Kylie Oversen, the party chairwoman, sees brighter days ahead.
“We don’t take for granted that winning back the governor’s seat, as Democrats, is probably the most important thing we could do to take back power. But, on the other hand, there is also real power in the Legislature,” she said. “... Maybe we won’t be in the majority in the next two or three cycles. But we can get back to a little more balance. We picked up seats in 2018. I’m confident we’ll pick up seats in 2020.”
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