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Forum Communications Company Publisher, Mark Jacobs. photo by Jenna Watson/Grand Forks Herald

Jacobs: N.D. Democrats stuck in the doldrums

Too bad for North Dakota Democrats.

No organization. No money. No candidates.

All this when the political tide has turned in their direction.

This is true for several reasons.

To start, the party out of power usually improves its position in the off-year elections, such as those pending in 2018.

Second, hard times usually favor Democrats, and that's been especially true in North Dakota. It used to be axiomatic that dry weather and low crop prices boosted Democratic chances and sometimes elected Democratic governors.

Third, the issues have veered sharply in the Democrats' direction. The outcry about health care is one example. The Russia investigation is another. Then there's the president, whose approval rating is below 40 percent in national polls.

Of course, it's not true that Democrats are completely without resources. The junior senator, Heidi Heitkamp, is a Democrat, but she's the only Democrat holding a statewide elective office in North Dakota, and the only Democrat to have won statewide since 2008. Heitkamp will undoubtedly lead the Democratic ticket in 2018, when her term ends. Speculation that she might quit has been rampant, but it's mostly wishful thinking by Republicans. So are Republican dreams of defeating her.

Heitkamp's popularity is rising. Her approval rating is 60 percent, 11th among U.S. senators and only six points behind her North Dakota colleague, John Hoeven, a Republican whose own approval rating has fallen in the most recent poll, although he still ranks first among Senate Republicans.

As a Senate candidate, Heitkamp might not have coattails, however. That's because there's nothing to hold on to.

Heitkamp is a Democrat, of course, but a Democrat of a different cloth than the state party leadership. She's willing to work with Republicans. She's attentive to the state's economic interests, including the coal industry. She's not vocal about the social issues that animate many Democrats. She supports gun ownership.

Some party leaders have pretty much repudiated Heitkamp as a lost cause, just too conservative and just too cozy with the Trump administration. When she suggested that resistance "is pretty much a waste of my time," a former state Democratic Party chair responded, "This is the final straw for me."

Heitkamp's sins against the party include meeting with the president-elect about a possible cabinet position and voting for his Supreme Court nominee.

Entering a candidate against her isn't out of the question. That would make a statement in the primary; in the general election it could be decisive.

Unhappy Democrats did just that in 1974, when Bill Guy, the Democratic governor, lost the Senate race by 177 votes. The disgruntled Democrat, running as an independent, got about 6,700 votes. He was a former chairman of the state Democratic Party.

Heitkamp is a Democrat in the Bill Guy mold, a centrist and a coalition builder. She's also a workhorse, and that's what won the 2012 election. She turned out voters in the state's inner cities and Native American communities, and their votes made the difference, giving Heitkamp a victory margin of less than 3,000 votes.

Turnout is an important factor in elections. Big turnout normally favors Democrats.

It doesn't guarantee that people who show up will vote for the entire ticket, however. Heitkamp might rally voters, but that might not help candidates down the ballot.

That might be especially true in 2018. It's a down-ballot election. There's no presidential race and no governor's race. That means most of the attention will be on the Senate race. Of course, the state's lone congressional seat will be filled, too, but there's a Republican incumbent who is likely to be seeking re-election. Even if he doesn't, there's no shortage of other Republicans who'd be willing to run.

Nobody's talking about Democratic candidates.

That doesn't mean there won't be one. Democrats managed to fill their ticket in 2016. The top vote-getter, running for state treasurer, fell just short of 30 percent of the votes cast. The Democratic presidential candidate won 27 percent of the votes. Coincidentally, that's the same percentage of North Dakotans who used to tell pollsters that they identified with the Democratic Party.

To be fair, the Democratic organization appears to be improving. Its officials have been timelier and more pointed in their press releases, for example, and they've ramped up criticism of Republican office-holders.

Heitkamp has raised money for her campaign, but she'll need it to combat the barrage that Republicans and interest groups will unleash. She probably can't afford to share even if she were inclined.

Democrats face another problem: The political energy in North Dakota is on the other side of the spectrum. The Legislature has grown notably more conservative, and the 2018 elections could increase that.

That leaves the Democratic Party in the doldrums.

Even though the tides—weather, economy and issues—have turned in their favor, the fundamentals — organization, money and candidates — are still against them.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald and is published each Tuesday. His email address is mjacobs@gfherald.com.

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