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Patrick Springer, Published November 04 2010

North Dakota Democrats weigh future after suffering big losses

It’s hard to find a darker day for North Dakota Democrats than the bruising they suffered in Tuesday’s election.

Democrats lost their exclusive hold on the congressional delegation, were left with even smaller legislative minorities, and were unable to crack the Republicans’ command of all statewide partisan offices.

It’s been years – decades – since North Dakota Democrats have had such little clout, as measured by elective officeholders and success at the ballot box.

Lloyd Omdahl, a former lieutenant governor and political science professor, finds strong parallels between Tuesday’s rout and the drubbing Democrats took in 1966.

That year, North Dakota Republicans scored large gains in a voter backlash against sweeping legislation a Democratic Congress and president had passed.

Sound familiar?

1965 was the year Medicare and Medicaid were passed and Social Security was overhauled – all now regarded as landmark legislation.

The corollaries this election were the controversial health reform package and the expensive stimulus and bailout bills supporters said averted a second economic depression, but detractors said added to the deficit and growth of government.

“I think it’s because Washington did too much,” Omdahl said, adding that national Democrats misread their 2008 election wins as a mandate for sweeping changes.

“In that way it was comparable” to 1966, he added. “I think the Obama administration, they just did too much at one time. We have kind of a status quo mentality in our political system.”

A key difference between then and now: In 1966, the national jobless rate was 3.6 percent, compared to the current 9.6 percent.

North Dakota Republicans gained 15 state Senate seats and 39 state House seats between the 1965 and 1967 sessions, while the size of the Legislature was reduced from 158 to 147 members.

In the 1966 election, however, the Democrats had the governor, lieutenant governor and state treasurer posts, whereas they hold no statewide partisan offices now.

After Tuesday’s election, North Dakota Republicans picked up 11 state House seats and nine in the Senate, with no Republicans losing their seats and seven Democratic incumbents losing.

The GOP now has 69 state House seats compared to 25 for the Democrats, and 35 state Senate seats compared to 12 for the Democrats.

More recently, in the watershed election of 1980, North Dakota Republicans rode a national wave brought by Ronald Reagan’s landslide presidential victory.

“That one comes to mind,” said Al Jaeger, North Dakota’s Republican secretary of state. “1980 was quite a sweep for the Republicans and ’84 they lost quite a lot.”

Also in 1980, North Dakota Republicans won the U.S. Senate race and eight other statewide races, Jaeger said. Four years later, Democrat Byron Dorgan was elected to the U.S. House as Democrats won five statewide races compared to four for the Republicans.

Have North Dakota Democrats ever had a worse election than the one on Tuesday?

“Probably not,” Jaeger said, adding, however, that he had not studied elections from the 1930s and 1940s.

But Omdahl said there really wasn’t a Democratic Party in North Dakota in its current form until the Non-Partisan League switched its affiliation from Republican to Democrat in 1956.

“It’s a dark day,” Mark Schneider, chairman of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party, said Wednesday. “We have to rebuild, regroup, get new leaders.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522