Several Republican state lawmakers have been censured by their own party in the wake of North Dakota’s House of Representatives expelling a member in March for workplace and sexual harassment.
Some believe that indicates an intraparty clash. The top House Republican characterizes it as a battle for the soul of the party. And one of the most respected GOP politicians in recent state history says the tactics being used are cutthroat and uncalled for.
A censure formally condemns someone's conduct. District GOP chairs and lawmakers say the recent censures are at least in part due to representatives’ votes to oust Rep. Luke Simons, R-Dickinson. But some say the reasons go further than that and include how lawmakers voted on certain legislation during the 2021 session, which recently ended.
Fifty-five of 80 House Republicans supported Simons' expulsion. A Tribune survey found that six who voted to expel have been censured, as well as one senator.
The censures have occurred at district reorganization meetings throughout the state. Those meetings take place in odd-number years and must conclude by May 15, meaning some districts have yet to meet.
Censured lawmakers include:
- Rep. Dick Anderson, R-Willow City
- Rep. Dwight Kiefert, R-Valley City
- Sen. Jerry Klein, R-Fessenden
- Rep. Jon Nelson, R-Rugby
- Rep. Paul Thomas, R-Velva
- Rep. Robin Weisz, R-Hurdsfield
- Rep. Denton Zubke, R-Watford City
One district chairman also tabled a motion to censure the House majority leader, who is from a different district. A motion to censure Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Grand Forks, was unsuccessful at District 17 Republicans' reorganizational meeting last week.
'Their tactics are ruthless'
The censures parallel a national trend among Republicans in the wake of the 2020 election that Donald Trump claims was stolen from him, as well as indicate a clash over whether lawmakers should vote their conscience or how their district wants, said Mark Jendrysik, professor of political science and public administration at the University of North Dakota.
Also at play, he said, is "virtue-signaling" in opposing the so-called "cancel culture" or "political correctness" some might link to Simons' downfall. Republicans in North Dakota have enough of a supermajority that "they can afford to play these kind of games inside the party," Jendrysik said.
Republicans control the House 80-14 and the Senate 40-7, and hold all statewide elected seats.
"They can afford to do this because, I think, the people in these districts know that if this representative resigns or loses a primary, 'we'll still have a Republican anyway and maybe one that we agree with more,'" Jendrysik said.
A censure's impact depends on "the individual power base of the member of the Legislature," he added. "If you have enough of a personal power base, you can kind of ignore these things."
Some political observers link the censures to the ultraconservative Bastiat Caucus, a group of lawmakers who support gun rights, limited government and less spending. Simons was a member.
"They didn't defend Luke Simons' behavior, but they defended Luke Simons because they didn't like the process that (the expulsion) was gone through," said former Gov. Ed Schafer, whose 1992 election is credited with leading Republicans to political dominance today. He thinks Simons' defenders "had some legitimate arguments as far as process."
However, "What it seems like they have done is they have gone into district meetings and tried to punish the people who voted differently than they wanted them to. That's inappropriate," Schafer said.
In his view, the effort "stains that Libertarian-leaning, conservative group" and moves away from policy and the direction of government.
"Their tactics are ruthless and they're inappropriate, and it takes away from the very thing that they ought to be standing for," Schafer said.
House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, said he "wouldn't disagree" with linking Bastiat Caucus supporters to the censure efforts. He stands by the procedures that led to Simons' expulsion.
"You can see it's a fight for the identity of the GOP party. That's what it looks like to me," Pollert said.
'Having a voice'
Anderson and Thomas were censured at the District 6 annual meeting in March for "participation in the removal of a fellow legislator without due process," according to district party resolutions that also cited Anderson's voting record.
Newly elected District 6 GOP Chairman Charlie Adams said there are "concerns about the legislators kind of seeming like they're not always acting in the best interests of all the voters."
A motion to censure the House majority leader came before Minot-area District 40 Republicans. Pollert is from a different district. Newly elected district GOP Chairman Jay Lundeen, who tabled the motion and expects it to be "squashed," said "a lot of people in our state feel that the people that we elect to represent us in Bismarck aren't doing their jobs as what we North Dakotans want."
Lundeen said "the push" in some districts is "a lot bigger than Luke Simons." Other contentious topics include issues around gun rights and transgender girls competing in K-12 sports.
"Our movement is about everyday people having a voice," Lundeen said.
Republicans in some districts have shown support for their lawmakers' votes.
District 4 Republicans voted unanimously last week for a commendation for their delegation, citing "the good work that they did during the session."
"We had heard about the censures of others and we thought ours had been doing good work, so we gave them a commendation," District 4 GOP Chairman Chuck Walen said.
Reps. Clayton Fegley, R-Berthold, and Terry Jones, R-New Town, voted against Simons' expulsion, which was "part of it, but it was their overall performance," Walen said.
Grand Forks-area District 42 Republicans "are completely in support" of Reps. Claire Cory's and Emily O'Brien's votes in favor of Simons' expulsion, said district GOP Chairwoman Sadie Hanson. O'Brien had shared her experiences of being made uncomfortable by Simons' behavior toward her.
"It's unfortunate to see that this group has censured other legislative members in different districts across the state," Hanson said.
'None of us wanted to do that'
District 14 Republicans on April 10 censured their entire delegation, including Klein, who did not vote on Simons' expulsion. The censures were specifically related to the lawmakers not voting for various bills constituents thought were important, including one that would penalize abortion with a murder offense, Klein said.
"Apparently there's movement across the state that the Republicans are not following the state platform and that we should adhere more closely," he said, adding, "I certainly believe that somewhere in people's minds there was the Luke Simons expulsion, and there is still those who believe that he was not given due process."
Nelson said the censures are "a direct impact" of Simons' expulsion, which he supported.
"I just point out that none of us wanted to do that," Nelson said. "We get accused of celebrating this. There was nothing to celebrate with that. As a colleague, that was one of the hardest, hardest things I've ever had to do, but it was deserved."
Weisz said he was "fairly disappointed" by his censure because he's represented his district well in his 25 years in office.
"It really revolves around the expulsion," he said.
Kiefert said the people who supported his censure in District 24 for voting to expel Simons are Libertarians "masquerading" as Republicans.
"Who could support someone that is abusing and harassing young women at the Capitol? Who stands for that? Who supports that?" he said.
Thomas also was censured for his vote to expel Simons. He said that he respects the opinions of those who voted to censure him but is "100% confident" in what he did.
Zubke was censured at the District 39 reorganization meeting for his voting record, which included his vote to expel Simons. New district Chairwoman Gretchen Stenehjem -- who defeated Ben Simons, Luke Simons' brother, for the position -- said the censure vote wasn't on the agenda and came at the end of the meeting, "so the vote is not a clear representation of the membership."
Zubke said he was in the restroom when the resolution to censure him was introduced.
"I think mainstream conservative Republicans in North Dakota have been silent for too long," he said. "A small minority of people have been very vocal over the past few years. ... It's important that the silent majority of conservative Republicans wake up and realize politics is important."
Districts across the state have seen larger-than-expected turnout at reorganization meetings this year. But Pollert said "the changing of some of the district chairs has actually been happening for two to four years now."
"The Republican Party is very diverse, and there's some of those folks who are a lot more conservative, say they don't like the direction of the party, so that's what they're trying to do," he said.
North Dakota Republican Party Chairman Rick Berg did not respond to messages seeking comment.
The party's headquarters was packed Tuesday evening for the Bismarck-area District 32 reorganization meeting. No resolution was introduced to censure Sen. Dick Dever or Reps. Lisa Meier and Pat Heinert, all R-Bismarck, although a piece of paper was distributed with the legislators' voting records on certain bills -- including the Simons vote, the transgender sports bill and legislation to prohibit the state health officer from issuing a mask mandate.
The sheet listed the "Patriot Vote" on each bill and whether the lawmakers voted accordingly. A similar paper was passed out at the Bismarck-area District 47 meeting Wednesday, though censure was not discussed there either.
The Bismarck-area District 7 reorganization meeting had to move locations because of turnout. District members met in the cafeteria of Liberty Elementary School.
Bismarck chiropractor Steve Nagel lost a bid for the chairmanship of the District 32 GOP on Tuesday. He told the Tribune he decided to run for chair because in the past year there has been "a significant loss of freedoms" and "much of the Republican Party stood by and did nothing."
"People are waking up," he said. "It's only the beginning."
Former Gov. Schafer said he sees a fracture forming in the Republican supermajority caused by "skirmishes" in the Legislature resulting from "personal ideology and direction and not political philosophy and values." He cited the transgender sports bill, which passed but was vetoed by Gov. Doug Burgum.
"This legislative session especially wasn't driven by the people, it was driven by personal ideology, which in my opinion puts a wall between the legislators and the people," Schafer said.
Pollert declined to comment on a party fracture, but he said "there's fences to be mended."
"This whole thing, when you're working with government, is compromise," he said. "Some of these folks don't want to do any. They want to be just straight to this. The Republican Party is a lot bigger than that, but that's my opinion."
Reach Jack Dura at 701-223-8482 or firstname.lastname@example.org.