Timing isn’t everything in politics, but it is sure enough important, and timing may favor a Democrat in North Dakota’s general election. Once again, as in the primary a fortnight ago, the focus will be on the race for state treasurer. It’s the only statewide contest Democrats have a chance to win.
In the wake of the primary campaign, North Dakota’s political landscape has shifted in several ways, potentially opening some cracks in this Republican stronghold. The Democratic candidate for treasurer, Mark Haugen of Bismarck, could be the beneficiary.
COVID-19 is responsible for the increased prominence of the treasurer’s office, which has survived since statehood despite several efforts to abolish it. The pandemic derailed the Republican Party’s state convention, and there was no official endorsement. Instead, two candidates collected signatures, got their names on the ballot and duked it out to win the party’s nomination for the office. The winner was Thomas Beadle, a state representative from Fargo. His name will be on the general election ballot. Beadle defeated Dan Johnston, also a member of the state House of Representatives. He’s from Kathryn, a small town south of Valley City. The race was close statewide; Beadle’s home county provided a big share of his winning margin of votes.
Beadle declared himself “a strong supporter of President Trump,” although his legislative record shows him to be among the most liberal Republican members of the House. Johnston, on the other hand, is a loyal member of the right-leaning Bastiat Caucus, which has clashed with Gov. Doug Burgum, notably in this context, over the role of the state auditor, Josh Gallion. He’s been a Bastiat ally. His term runs until 2022.
The campaign was a kind of proxy battle. Burgum endorsed Beadle. U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer backed Johnston. The face-off suggested a developing rivalry for dominance in the party. Burgum put a share of his personal fortune into the campaign through the Dakota Leadership committee, set up to help elect candidates who will support his ideas about re-inventing government. Cramer put money into Johnston’s campaign, plus he secured an endorsement of Johnston from Donald Trump.
Despite his victory, Beadle appears to have emerged from the campaign as “damaged goods.” His embrace of Trump seemed opportunistic; Trump made a point of saying he sticks with those who stuck with him from the beginning. In this race, that was Johnston.
This might be offset by Gov. Burgum’s full-throated and financially generous support – except that Burgum appears to be trying to “stack” the capitol tower with officials who will support him. This undermines Beadle’s own campaign rhetoric, which promised a watchdog in the treasurer’s office. As a legislator, he voted to abolish the office. That would have taken a constitutional amendment.
Haugen, the Democratic candidate, has said he will campaign to keep the office as “an independent voice.” This might resonate with voters.
The treasurer is a member of several state boards. The most important of these is the Board of University and School Lands, which handles a trust fund that has existed since statehood. For several years, transfers weren’t made to that fund, and to another fund supporting water projects. The oversight went unnoticed and contributed to a budget crisis in 2015, when other revenue had to be found to offset the shortfall. Blame got passed around, but it is the treasurer’s job to make sure the funds are credited to the correct account. In 2016, the Democratic candidate said he’d work to get rid of the office, a notion that Haugen has dismissed.
The upcoming election occurs as division in the Republican Party becomes increasingly evident. Burgum’s lavish spending has alienated legislators, since he invested heavily to unseat Jeff Delzer, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and to oppose some members of the Bastiat Caucus, unsuccessfully in at least two instances. Bastiat activists likely have long memories, and the founder of the caucus denounced Burgum’s tactics in an op-ed piece widely published just after the election.
Trump’s populist appeal bled away Democratic votes in 2016; in 2018, many of those Democrats returned to the fold to back U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s re-election bid. She lost, but she ran well ahead of Trump’s own showing in 2016, carrying counties and legislative districts that had turned out heavily for Trump.
Haugen himself has solid credentials. His online campaign site identifies him as “graduate student success officer” at the University of Mary, and notes that he is “heavily involved” in emergency medical services. He comes from a political family; his grandfather, Donnell Haugen, was leader of the Nonpartisan League caucus in the Legislature. Haugen helped steer the League into alliance with the Democrats in 1956, making North Dakota a two-party state – a situation that lasted half a century, until the last statewide official elected as a Democrat left the tower in 2008.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.