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Primary serves as a referendum on state, district GOP influence in North Dakota

Bismarck Tribune - 6/13/2024

When Cando resident and military veteran Alex Balazs announced his candidacy for North Dakota’s sole seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in March, few people in political circles recognized his name. But less than a month later, he walked away from the state Republican convention triumphant, having secured the once-coveted party endorsement.

Tuesday night was a different story for Balazs. Despite winning the state party’s endorsement — which has often been the end-all, be-all in primary races — he came in a distant fourth in a five-candidate race, getting just 4% of the vote. Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak handily triumphed over her closest rival in the race, former state Rep. Rick Becker of Bismarck, while Balazs was left in the dust.

Balazs only won the party endorsement because of spoiled-ballot shenanigans at the state convention that blocked Fedorchak from winning the endorsement. They were facilitated by supporters of Becker, who was ineligible for the nomination. But Balazs' endorsement and subsequent loss is emblematic of the question that is facing state- and district-level Republican parties, many of which have been taken over by a sect of more populist-leaning activists in recent years: Are state and district parties reflecting North Dakota Republicans in the wake of these leadership shifts?

The results of this year’s primary election suggest that the answer is a resounding no.

A litmus test

It was clear early on in this election cycle that Republican parties were facing a point of inflection. Since the 2020 election, populists have increasingly taken over the state and district parties, and the issue surfaced when incumbents in state legislative districts saw challenges that were often supported by, or in some cases came from, members of the district party. In many cases, these incumbents opted not to seek their party’s endorsement to make it on the ballot — typically the route taken in North Dakota — or to continue on to the primary even if they didn’t win the endorsement.

The trend continued as candidates launched campaigns for statewide office. Multiple candidates, including Fedorchak and Lt. Gov. Tammy Miller, proclaimed their plans to continue to the primary. State Party Chair Sandi Sanford told the Tribune ahead of this year’s NDGOP convention that this year’s election would be a referendum on the relevance of the state party.

After Balazs emerged with the endorsement in the U.S. House race, Sanford reaffirmed her stance that the primary election would be “a real litmus test” for the state GOP, singling out the House race as one that would be very indicative of the party’s current influence.

Sanford on Tuesday said that Fedorchak was the clear frontrunner for the endorsement. When Balazs won the endorsement, he had multiple hurdles to overcome — and even the state party’s backing wasn’t enough to bridge the gap, she said. She also said Fedorchak won the day when she withdrew from the convention endorsement process, rather than engaging with party infighting.

“He did not have time on his side. And he did not have name recognition,” Sanford said of Balazs. “And because of that, it was difficult for him to gain the support statewide.”

The value of the state party's backing was also tested in the nonpartisan race to lead North Dakota'sDepartment of Public Instruction. The state GOP issued a letter of support for homeschooling advocate Jim Bartlett, who ran on a platform of returning the Ten Commandments to schools, over incumbent Kirsten Baesler, who had previously received the party's backing, as well as former state Sen. Jason Heitkamp and former college administrator Darko Draganic.

Baesler was expected by many to sail through to the November general election, when the top two vote-getters from the June primary will face off. She did so on Tuesday. Though Bartlett had thousands of dollars more in campaign funds than both Heitkamp and Draganic, as well as the state GOP's backing, he didn't qualify for the November ballot, coming up short as Heitkamp beat him by two percentage points.

Traditionalists prevail

One of the most controversial instigators throughout this campaign season has been Citizens’ Alliance of North Dakota, a political action committee led by state Rep. Brandon Prichard, R-Bismarck. The group has funded mailers and advertisements that largely attacked GOP state legislative incumbents through populist purity tests, while also boosting potential challengers who are more in line with its views. Prichard’s actions related to multiple political action committees are the subject of a recent complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Prichard on Tuesday lost his seat to Mike Berg, co-founder of Apex Engineering Group. Berg ran alongside Ken Rensch, an owner of ambulance service staffing, management and consulting companies, and the candidates told the Tribune ahead of the primary that Prichard’s outspoken approach to social issues, such as a series of posts from last October in which he espoused Christian nationalist beliefs, has resulted in suggestions that they would see as government overreach.

That message seemed to land with District 8 voters, who ousted Prichard but kept his running mate, state Rep. SuAnn Olson. Olson came in second place, but won by just 30 votes — a margin small enough that Prichard could contest the election if he foots the bill for a recount. Prichard did not respond to a Tribune request for comment on Wednesday, but he told the North Dakota Monitor he would not ask for a recount.

“It was a really close race — different messages resonated with different groups of people and it could have easily gone the other way,” Berg said of Tuesday’s results. “The people of District 8 appreciate visiting with the people that are going to represent them. They want to feel like they've got a connection with their representatives, that they trust that the representatives will respect their concerns.”

In many other contested races, the dynamic was reversed: The incumbent was a more traditional Republican who faced a challenge from a Citizens’ Alliance-backed populist. And in the most controversial races, the populist candidates didn’t end up standing a chance.

District 30, which encompasses part of south Bismarck and its outskirts, was home to an effort from within the district party to oust a slate of incumbents.

State Sen. Diane Larson, R-Bismarck, beat Adam Rose, a property manager and member of the district Republicans’ executive committee, by nearly 20 percentage points in the Senate race. State Reps. Mike Nathe, the assistant majority leader, and Glenn Bosch, beat Dave Charles, a Navy veteran and vice chairman of the Capital Electric Cooperative Board, and Justis Amundson, a project manager for RPT Industries and the District 30 GOP chair, by more than 10 percentage points.

Those results come after the incumbents bypassed the district endorsement process earlier this year. The district’s delegation, in doing so, became part of a trend of incumbents casting aside district and state GOP endorsements due to the extreme rightward shifts they’ve witnessed in recent years. And even with the district party’s chair on the ballot, the more traditional wing of the Republican party won handily.

In Mandan’s District 34, incumbent state Rep. Todd Porter faced a targeted stream of mailers attacking his legislative voting record that he characterizes as misleading. The Citizens’ Alliance-funded deluge focused primarily on bills related to social issues such as gender-affirming care.

Porter handily won reelection, though he told the Tribune that some friends severed ties with him in the wake of the advertising push. He said he has “never been involved in such a vile half-truth campaign in my 25 years of being in elections” — but emphasized that he thinks North Dakota voters are capable of stepping past campaign negativity to focus on their needs in the Legislature.

“I think that common sense outweighed their lies,” Porter said. “And I think that Brandon Prichard may have learned a little lesson about keeping his nose in his own district, and maybe knocking on doors in his own district, rather than trying to manipulate other districts."

University of North Dakota Political Science Professor Mark Jendrysik said that he expects many North Dakota voters didn’t bite when offered a populist candidate because they prioritize results over attention from their representatives — and some populists in the state are more known for the headlines they generate than the bills they get passed.

“If you have someone who's just a grandstander and a show pony, people might say, 'Well, we sent you to Bismarck and what did you do for us?'” Jendrysik said. “So I think the more populist group has to also demonstrate they get stuff done.”

GOP to reassess, chart path forward

Tuesday's results in Bismarck-Mandan area legislative districts suggest a candidate could face an uphill climb trying to win an election on an endorsement alone. But Jendrysik told the Tribune that he expects the battle over district-level Republican parties to continue for years as populists’ influence evolves.

Sanford said the state party needs to assess the weight of an endorsement as it moves forward, now that the primary has come to a close and provided some insight on the matter. The party’s main focus is getting primary winners elected in the coming months, she said, but she hopes to continue efforts to stabilize the party and ensure Republicans of varying political beliefs can engage in the political process.

“We do have to consider, how strong is that endorsement?” Sanford said. “Does it hold the water that the districts want it to? But what we saw was incumbents did really, really well at that district level.”

Sanford also decried the negativity that has plagued much of this election cycle, saying she found many of the tactics employed “very disappointing.” She touted integrity as one of the Republican Party’s self-described tenets, and described the attacks on candidates as “a lack of campaign integrity.”

Jendrysik ascribed much of the rhetoric employed throughout the campaign cycle, especially in statewide races, to a scarcity of differences between candidates’ stances. Whether it’s the U.S. House primary or the gubernatorial primary, candidates largely shared similar priorities and policy views, instead choosing to draw contrasts with their opponents based on their resumes and personalities.

“There's always been negative campaigning,” Jendrysik said. “This was very in-your-face. I think it was also an attempt to nationalize the campaign — to link opponents to national issues in a way which generally hasn't happened all that much in North Dakota.”

Sanford said she doesn’t have a say in regards to actions taken by campaigns or PACs, which limits the ways in which she can influence campaign advertisements and tactics. But she is hoping to find ways to reduce the amount of mud-slinging in future campaigns, as she doesn’t believe it aligns with party values.

That could come internally through accountability in state party processes. Sanford said she saw “people breaking the rules that say that they're the rule-keepers,” alluding to an incident at the state convention in which a slate of delegates was nearly blocked from being seated due to a procedural dispute with delegate selection. And she said she plans to look for ways to curb what she sees as integrity issues in collaboration with the rest of the party.

“I come from a health care background. To know the name of your condition and diagnose it, that's the number one issue,” she said. “In order to treat something, you have to know what it is. And I see it, I know what I'm dealing with. And that's where we start.”

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