One of the most common curiosities about North Dakota politics during the past few years has been the mystery of a heavily Republican state being represented in Washington by three Democrats when Congressman Earl Pomeroy and Senators Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad were serving.
The truth is that since territorial days North Dakota voters have never been so partisan that they would not consider the candidates of both parties. Our political history is strewn with factional alliances and party crossovers, with success depending on independent-thinking voters.
The first territorial legislature was dominated by Democrats and, in the first general election for territorial delegate in 1862, territorial voters chose Democrat Capt. J.B.S Todd. He was followed by Republicans Walter Burleigh and S. L. Spink who were then followed by Democrat John Burbank.
While other territorial offices were filled as patronage appointments by national administrations, the position of delegate continued to be elected, giving rise to extensive political maneuvering among a variety of factions. It set the pattern for a free-wheeling style of Dakota politics.
Howard Lamar, author of Dakota Territory 1861-1889, noted that “the word ‘faction’ was still a more accurate description of the political groups in the Territory than the word ‘party’.”
The influx of homesteading Norwegian and German farmers under a Republican administration gave the grateful beneficiaries of the Homestead Act a Republican bent. But cutting through partisan loyalties were the hardships being suffered by farmers who were experiencing falling prices, rising production costs, more debt and exploitation by the railroads and milling industry. This gave rise to the Farmers Alliance.
Members of the Farmers’ Alliance captured a majority in the state house of representatives and a strong delegation in the senate in the 1888 elections. The Alliance provided farmers a new avenue through which they could demonstrate their independence from political parties.
In the first statewide elections in 1889, Republicans garnered two-thirds of the general vote. But, in a factional alliance a year later, the Populists and the Democrats came back and elected most of their ticket, including a Populist governor. In 1894, Republicans regained control of the state offices by defeating a new combination calling itself the “Fusion” party.
At this juncture in our history, the boss rule of Alexander McKenzie had become too much. McKenzie and his faction had carried corruption too far so Progressive Republicans joined with Democrats in 1906 to elect Democrat “Honest John” Burke governor for three straight terms.
Frustrated by ordinary politics, in 1915 the oppressed farmers then formed the Nonpartisan League, a protest organization that filed its candidates against the regular Republicans in the Republican primary for the next 40 years.
In response to the partisanship of the Governor William Langer years in the 1930s, the regular Republicans backed Democrat John Moses against League candidates, giving him the governor’s chair for three terms and then a U. S. Senate seat.
Then in 1956, the NPL filed its slate of candidates in the Democratic primary. In 1958, Democrat Quentin Burdick was elected to Congress and in 1960 he won a U. S. Senate seat while Democrat Bill Guy won the governorship.
With this sort of crossover political style in our history, we can conclude that the North Dakota electorate has always been quite fluid and often breaks party ranks. It indicates the presence of a reservoir of voters who can be more independent than Republican. Thus, a Democratic delegation in Washington.
Applying this history to the present Republican presidential race, it suggests that North Dakotans would be more comfortable with a moderate candidate like Mitt Romney than a more conservative Rick Santorum. After all, the state has been weaving a little to the right but somewhere down the middle since territorial days.
Omdahl is a UND professor emeritus in political science and a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota.
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