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Dale Wetzel, Associated Press, Published November 02 2012

Democrats hope to make gains in North Dakota Legislature

BISMARCK – Republicans will still control the North Dakota Legislature after Tuesday’s election, political activists on both sides say, but Democrats hope to take advantage of some open seats in Jamestown and Fargo to make gains.

The party’s hopes are particularly high for John Grabinger, a Jamestown businessman and former city councilman who is running for the Senate seat held for 46 years by retiring Republican David Nething.

Grabinger lost to Nething by only eight votes four years ago. This year, he is running against Republican Bernie Satrom, a church building designer and property manager.

Taking on a political newcomer is less daunting than running against someone with the resume of Nething, a former Senate Republican majority leader and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Grabinger said.

“I think we’ve got great support, and we’re really excited to bring this to a conclusion,” he said.

Satrom said Grabinger’s close finish in 2008 “did not intimidate me at all.”

“I’ve knocked on almost every door twice, and some three times. ... I think people are looking for nonpolitician types, and maybe a fresh perspective,” he said.

In south Fargo, banker George B. Sinner, the son of North Dakota’s last Democratic governor, is trying to make inroads in heavily Republican District 46 after Republican Sen. Tom Fischer died of a heart attack a year ago.

Sinner is running against Jim Roers, a Fargo construction company owner who was appointed to fill Fischer’s seat and is now seeking a four-year term of his own. Democrats believe Sinner’s name recognition improves their chances.

One of Sinner’s main campaign issues is a proposal to exempt clothing sales from North Dakota’s 5 percent sales tax, an idea the Legislature previously rejected. Across the Red River, Minnesota exempts clothing from its sales tax.

“I have tried to focus on trying to find solutions, and I’m going to keep doing that,” said Sinner, whose father, George A. Sinner, was governor for eight years before he left office in 1992.

Republicans have controlled both the North Dakota House and Senate since 1994 and now hold two-thirds majorities in both chambers. In the Senate, Republicans have 35 seats to Democrats’ 12; House Republicans have 69 seats to Democrats’ 25.

Republicans are defending 17 of the 25 Senate seats on the ballot and 34 of the 50 House seats. The election will be the first one to use a new 47-district map drawn by the Legislature after the 2010 census to reflect the previous decade’s population changes in the state.

Republicans who controlled the redistricting process created new districts in Fargo and Bismarck and eliminated rural districts in central and northeastern North Dakota.

Other races to watch, political activists say, are in Fargo’s District 44, where Democrat Rick Olek is attempting to unseat incumbent Republican Sen. Tim Flakoll; Fargo’s new District 16, which features a Senate matchup between Republican David Duff and Democrat Tyler Axness; and Bismarck’s District 30, where Republican Ron Carlisle and Democrat Nancy Guy are competing for a Senate seat formerly held by Bob Stenehjem, the GOP Senate’s majority leader. Stenehjem was killed in a July 2011 traffic accident.

Four years ago, President Barack Obama won 13 North Dakota counties, including Cass and Grand Forks counties, and almost 45 percent of the vote in the best North Dakota showing of any Democratic presidential candidate since 1976.

Democrats don’t expect Obama to run as strongly in North Dakota this year, but say his showing isn’t likely to affect legislative races. Of greater importance, they say, is the U.S. Senate campaign between Democrat Heidi Heitkamp and Republican Rick Berg, which polls say is neck and neck.

“How Heidi does in my district, I think, is also how I will do,” Sinner said. “I think Heidi’s race is going to be as close as mine.”

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