[Updated X 1]
While in Denver for the DNC convention, I had a couple opportunities to visit with Markos Moulitsas Zúñiga, the founder of DailyKos.com. Markos knew North Dakota was in play but he noted our state has kept below the radar fairly well. He really wanted to know more about what's going on here and asked me to give him a "lay of the land." While we talked, Rick Spisak of AveryVoice.com was shooting video of at least part of our conversation. Next thing you know... it's on YouTube.
Over the course of the week I've gathered information from various sources and wrote up an e-mail to Markos. I sent it off and Kos has since asked me to post the info here. Here goes:
The population of North Dakota is about 650,000. To the extent you want to believe what you read on Wikipedia, North Dakota's largest City is Fargo with about 100,000 people and a metro area of about 195,000 people. The state's two main political parties are the Republican Party and the Democratic-NPL (Non-Partisan League) Party. The NPL has a rich history going back to the early 1900's and generally relates to prairie populism with a smattering of socialism We're the only state with a state-owned Bank and a state-owned Mill and Elevator. Every now and then a Republican will call the Democratic-NPL party "Marxists" or "Socialists," but, strangely, nobody here -- not even Republicans -- ever talks about getting rid of our socialized bank or mill and elevator. It's kinda funny.
North Dakota's congressional delegation is made up of two Democratic-NPL Senators (Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan) and one Congressman (Earl Pomeroy). Conrad and Dorgan are considered fairly progressive Democrats, though both are also considered to be fiscal conservatives who aggressively monitor our nation's purse strings. Many Democrats here and elsewhere feel Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and known for his attention to detail and his use of charts, voted wrong on FISA and the confirmation of Sam Alito, but also, significantly, feel he voted right on authorization of the use of force in the war in Iraq. Dorgan, author of Take This Job and Ship It, chairs the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and is chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee. Both senators are very popular here. Neither is on the ballot this year. Pomeroy, who serves on the House Ways and Means and House Ag committees, is a "blue dog" who, again, many disagree with his position on FISA, but he is incredibly accessible and popular. His seat seems secure in a race against a Republican opponent who doesn't even seem to have the support of the leadership in his own party.
Yesterday Xavier Cromartie at the Daily Kos pointed out the importance of North Dakota (and Montana) in the November election. Cromartie points out that our three electoral votes could be the difference between an Obama presidency and a McCain presidency. Cromartie calls for help in registering voters here, but that reflects a common misunderstanding about North Dakota's landscape. See (for those of you not from here), North Dakota is the only state in the U.S. that does not have any form of voter registration. Any citizen who shows up with a driver's license or other statutorily acceptable proof of residency is allowed to vote. And we have the usual HAVA ability of voters to vote by provisional ballot if there is some question about eligibility too vote, though – as usual – a regular ballot is always preferred. So voter registration doesn't help us. What North Dakota needs isn't voter registration. What North Dakota needs are (a) better small-donor fundraising mechanisms and (b) stronger down-ticket campaign operations. These two obviously go hand in hand. I'll try to explain why these things are important.
Many North Dakotans -- including leadership and top candidates for both Democrats and Republicans -- favor hunting rights and favor reduction in the numbers of abortions. North Dakota's white, homogenous population is Norwegian-Lutheran and German-Catholic, religions. Our fundamentalist Christian friends and neighbors are doing a fine job of populating our state. The movie "Jesus Camp" was about a fundamentalist bible camp right here in North Dakota. Our Native American population -- and our Indian Reservation counties -- lean strongly Democratic. At a parade yesterday in the state's capital of Bismarck, it seemed as though every other parade entrant was carrying a sign that said "First Americans for Obama."
Photos Courtesy of JL
Our Republican Media
The Democratic-NPL party in North Dakota, over much of the past 20 or 25 years, has been unheard and unseen. Republicans hold all of North Dakota's statewide elected offices except for Agriculture Commissioner, an office held by Roger Johnson, a Dem-NPLer. Republican Governor John Hoeven polls higher than any other governor in the nation, with approval numbers occasionally bumping up to the mid to high 80s. Hoeven gets a free pass from the state's largest newspaper outlet – Forum Communications, Inc., which owns 4 or 5 of the state's largest daily newspapers (Fargo Forum, Grand Forks Herald, Jamestown Sun, Dickinson Press, and the Pioneer Journal of West Fargo [which may be a weekly, I'm not sure]) and TV stations in four of North Dakota's largest cities. Forum Communications is owned by the Marcil family. Bill Marcill is said to be a very close, personal, long-time family friend of John Hoeven's father, a wealthy banker in Minot, North Dakota. This relationship is clearly reflected in the pages of Forum newspapers and on the Forum-owned TV stations. Forum Communications had at least two (2) reporters at the RNC convention in St. Paul after having exactly zero (0) writers at the DNC convention in Denver.
The Bismarck Tribune – likely the state's next largest newspaper – is owned by Lee Enterprises. You may know that Lee Enterprises is sucking air right now, with stock prices plummeting and no bottom in sight. The Bismarck Tribune's editorials lean far to the right and support Democratic-NPLers only half-heartedly and only when they "have to" to give an appearance of objectivity. Otherwise, Tribune writers and editors are almost never critical of Hoeven or any other Republican. Not only that, but they are critical of anybody who dares to be critical of their pal Hoeven, Republicans, GOP policies and/or their scandals. North Dakota's TV and radio is pretty disappointing, too, having last engaged in hard investigative journalism during the Eisenhower administration.
Because of this imbalance in media coverage and scrutiny, the Dem-NPL candidate for governor -- Senator Tim Mathern -- doesn't have much of a chance to beat Hoeven unless some Hoeven-related scandal is uncovered. If such a scandal is uncovered, don't look for it in any North Dakota newspaper or on radio or TV until after it shows up on NorthDecoder.com. That is just our reality.
North Dakota's Republican Legislature
Until 2 years ago, Republicans held a super-majority in both houses of the North Dakota legislature. Their majority was strong enough that they could override a veto without the help of any Democrats, and could (and did) basically ignore the Democratic-NPL caucus, sometimes even going on the offensive against Democratic-NPLers to "put them in their place." The right-leaning media in North Dakota has also largely ignored the Democratic party, primarily interviewing them in response to controversial Republican proposals, and then portraying their responses as "whining."
Things changed a little leading up to the election in 2006. The North Dakota Democratic-NPL party had hired a communications director. Somehow -- mysteriously -- Democrats started getting their message out. There were press releases, media advisories, letters to the editor, press conferences and constant contact between the party and reporters and editorial staff all over the state. Instead of always playing defense, the party started playing some offense. This blog -- NorthDecoder -- showed up, too, and started to show the state's major newspapers what investigative reporting looked like. Suddenly -- mysteriously -- Republican scandals started to show up every now and then. Unfortunately, the party lost its communications director a few months ago and has failed to replace him, noting "other priorities." If North Dakota Democrats don't do well in November, this will be one of the big reasons why.
Today Republicans hold 26 seats to Democratic-NPLers holding 21 seats in the state Senate. If Democrats pick up three (3) senate seats, they will have a majority in the state senate. Some Senatorial districts look very available to the Democratic senatorial candidates.
Across the hall in the state capitol, Democratic-NPLers are outnumbered 60 to 33 in the House of Representatives. It would take a modern miracle for Republicans to lose that majority in November of 2008. DakotaPolitics.com has a good breakdown of the current legislative status here: http://www.dakotapolitics.com/legis_2007.
In the 2006 election the Dem-NPL picked up more legislative seats (by percentage) than any other state party picked up in any other state legislative body. Here's an excerpt of an analysis written by North Dakota's former DemNPL executive director, Jim Fuglie, right after the 2006 election:
Tuesday's election was a bit unusual [ ]. There were a total of 51 incumbent Legislators on the ballot Tuesday, and 11 of them lost. 40 were re-elected. About 80 percent. Interestingly all 11 were Republicans. No incumbent Democrat lost (okay, to be fair, the GOP had a lot more incumbents running than we did, but still . . .).
So if you get elected to the Legislature here in North Dakota, the odds are at least 4 in 5 that you will be re-elected. So these people get to know each other, become friends, and there's much less acrimony in the Legislature than most other places, I think.
There will be an unusually high number of new Legislators in the capitol this winter, however. Because of retirements and the 11 Legislators losing, there will be 23 new Legislators in the next session. Sixteen of them Democrats and 7 Republicans (Oooohhh, it was fun to write that).
It can be expected that the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party will target senate seats in districts like District 42, a university district in Grand Forks, where there were no legislative races (because even numbered legislative districts didn't have legislative races) in 2006 but where Democrats won every statewide race in 2006 except for the A.G.'s race in which a former Grand Forks legislator, Wayne Stenehjem, avoided the scandals he's been unable to avoid since. There were similarly Dem favorable results in District 42 in the 2008 Primary and there are strong Dem-NPL candidates running for all three legislative seats. District 18, also in and around Grand Forks, is another example of a district where Democrats did well in 2006 and have some hope of picking up legislative seats. District 18's numbers also looked pretty good for Democrats in the 2008 Primary. There are other districts where Democratic legislative candidates are hoping to find supportive voters.
During the past 18 months or so, North Dakota's Republican Party leadership has been plagued by scandals relating to our Workers Compensation Bureau (Workforce Safety and Insurance [WSI]). Our current WSI scheme has been constructed over the past 15 to 20 years by Republican legislators, with the support of our Republican governors, to provide kick-backs in the form of "dividends" and "safety grants" to big business and Republican-friendly organizations. The Exec Director -- recruited out of the fall-out from Ohio's workers comp scandal -- resigned amid his own various scandals (e.g. criminal charges relating to alleged misspending of public money, etc.) earlier this year and the Chairman of the Board also resigned when the newspapers could no longer ignore the scandals being exposed here on NorthDecoder.com in a blog post I entitled "Why Bob Indvik Should Resign." The E.D.'s criminal charges were dismissed by a district court judge, appealed by the prosecutors to our Supreme Court, the dismissal was reversed and the felony criminal case is still pending. The former board chairman avoided criminal charges probably by resigning from the board, his county government job and by moving some money around in a way that might also have been illegal. Both of these Work Comp resignations -- and an assortment of other departures from WSI -- happened, in part, because of public records exposed here on NorthDecoder.com. The State Auditor's Office is currently looking into another issue that could potentially blow the lid off a multi-million dollar illegal government handout shrouded in secrecy by Republican-favored exceptions to our state's open records laws.
Many are expecting a report from Republican State Auditor Bob Peterson laying out the problems with the program, but the word on the street is that State Auditor Bob Peterson (R) is being pressured by the Governor and the Attorney General to stall the report or to water it down for obvious (and some not-so-obvious) reasons. After decades of holding most of the statewide elected offices and supermajorities in the legislature, more than anything else, North Dakota's Republicans are afraid of being held accountable.
One of the many victims of North Dakota's WSI scandals is Jim Long. Long was a top-level official at WSI. He blew the whistle on the corruption he witnessed and, along with three other insiders, Long was fired after seeking whistleblower protection. Long is running for a state Senate seat in District 14, is working hard to replace his entrenched opponent and is working hard for small donations to help his campaign.
Another Republican party scandal involves our former Insurance Commissioner, Jim Poolman (R), who resigned about a year ago and went to work in the insurance industry after lobbying for legislation that was beneficial to one particular New York company called Inscap. I broke this story on NorthDecoder.com and the state's media -- though they read this website every day -- knew about it but ignored it for months but eventually picked it up when out-of-state news entities started covering it. An Inscap executive and the exec's wife donated something like $35,000 to Poolman and the ND GOP during the period of time when Poolman was lobbying for the pro-Inscap legislation in North Dakota and as a model law supported by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC). Poolman resigns and... guess who he goes to work for!!!
The NAIC has since enacted a watered-down ethics rule purporting to stop state regulators from doing what Poolman did. I like to call the new rule "the Poolman Rule." Poolman's Governor-appointed replacement -- a political newcomer/hack -- was caught, recently, abusing federal dollars to produce and broadcast "public service announcements" to elevate his name I.D. in T.V. and radio ads. The states' TV stations have agreed to give his opponent, Jasper Schneider (D), equal time under the FCC's "equal time" rule. Schneider, a strong Dem-NPL legislator is using that "equal time" but -- unlike the Republican -- he can't use tax money to pay for his ads. Schneider has to raise money to catch up. Aside from the taxpayer money he's spending, the Republuican's campaign is being bankrolled, primarily, by Poolman's insurance industry buddies and by the Republican's parents.
The Cost of North Dakota Campaigns
Political campaigns in North Dakota are relatively inexpensive. The word I get from inside the Dem-NPL party is that the average state legislative campaign runs on a budget of about $8,000 to $12,000 per candidate. An incumbent's race in a rural area might be a little less expensive than that, but in bigger towns an aggressive challenger's campaign might cost $40,000 or $50,000. A legitimate challenger's statewide campaign will cost at least $100,000, and probably twice that. Entrenched Secretary of State Al Jaeger (R) was able to win his re-election two years ago after reporting only 18 donors totaling $16,400 in contributions. Radio and TV ads are relatively inexpensive here, compared to many other states. Compared to other states, North Dakota is a cheap place to run a campaign. Democratic-NPLers here haven't done very well at tapping into small online contributions so far, but they've told me they're working on that. If the party did better at small-donor fundraising, it would help deflect the big criticism the party gets from right-wingers; that the party has historically gotten much of its operating budget from donors whose contributions come through our federal congressional delegation. Without more small dollar donations, the party will continue to depend on the congressional delegation. Political contributions under $200 don't have to be reported in North Dakota. The party accepts small donations -- $5, $10, $20 and up to $200 -- online.
Polling and other recent N.D. info regarding Obama/McCain:
Sept 1, 2008 – Last weekend, the North Dakota United Transportation Union (UTU) released data from its recent poll showing Obama leading in North Dakota, currently, by 3 points, with a margin of error of +/- 5%. I received the press release as I was typing this summary to you. (I can forward it to you if you're interested.) Governor Hoeven (R) leads in the poll by 63% to 19% over state Senator Tim Mathern, a long shot.
Aug 25, 2008 – Jamestown Sun – McCain seems to have abandoned North Dakota's Republicans, having announced he will not open any offices in North Dakota. (click here). By comparison, Obama's campaign has announced it intends to have 12 offices opened in the state by October 1st, in 11 towns/cities, including 2 offices in Fargo. The smallest town on the list of likely Obama office towns in October is Linton, a great little town in southcentral N.D. with a population of about 1,300. Five of the nine currently opened offices had their Grand Openings this week.
July 21 - 23, 2008 -- Research 2000/DailyKos -- McCain was up by a statistically insignificant 3 points.
July 10, 2008 – Rasmussen Reports – "North Dakota is as safe a Republican state as any in Presidential elections. George W. Bush carried the state by twenty-seven points in Election 2004 and twenty-eight points four years earlier. The state has voted for a Democratic Presidential candidate just once since 1936 and three times since 1916. Despite that history, John McCain and Barack Obama are tied in the latest Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of North Dakota voters. Both men earn 43% of the vote. When leaners are included, McCain holds a statistically insignificant one-point advantage, 47% to 46%" (Click here )
July 2, 2008 – NorthDecoder.com – at a 4th of July picnic (on July 2), Sen. Kent Conrad spoke. During his talk, Conrad said internal polling numbers were, at that time, showing Obama leading in North Dakota by 1%. (Click here ).
April 3, 2008 -- Dakota Weslayan -- McCain was reportedly up by 6 points in North Dakota.
Mar 6, 2008 – Survey USA – North Dakota 3 electoral college votes McCain – 42% /////// Obama - 46% 3 EC votes for Obama.
North Dakota is in play, but it will take a lot of work and some new financial support and some state party legwork to turn the state blue. The Obama campaign is doing great work. They have a solid team on the ground here and are building and growing every day. The Obama campaign organized fifty-nine "watch parties" for Senator Obama's acceptance speech in Denver, compared to the McCain campaign's four. There are currently 1,000 active volunteers working for the Obama campaign and -- with no offices -- one could guess there aren't 20 McCain volunteers in North Dakota.
The real question in North Dakota isn't whether the Obama campaign can do the job (yes, they can); the question is does the the rest of the Democratic Party here have the resources to provide the foundational support the Obama campaign needs. That remains to be seen.
[Welcome Kossacks!!! You're killing the gerbils in my little server.]
[Update #1: Rasmussen Reports shows huge post-convention McCain bump in poll released September 10, 2008.]