Omdahl: Can Nonpartisan League return to fill void?
With a diminishing core of Democrats struggling in an overwhelmingly Republican Legislature, discontent is cropping up over the apparent decline of the electoral capacity of Democratic Party.
This discontent has led to subdued discussions by several party activists about resurrecting the Nonpartisan League as a return player on the North Dakota political scene.
One proposal has been to reestablish the principle of “nonpartisan” in a new League, with candidates free to run in the primaries of either major party.
When founded, being nonpartisan was important to the League because it was an issues organization, created to fight exploitation of farmers by the railroads, chain banks and the Minneapolis milling industry. The founders didn’t want partisanship to obfuscate their goals.
At the time, neither the Republicans nor the Democrats were voicing the rural concerns. The farmers felt they were being stonewalled. In fact, it was rumored that a Cass County legislator told a delegation of farmers to “go home and slop the hogs.”
In true nonpartisan fashion, the first state candidates were left to file in the party primary of their choice. This being a Republican state, they all filed in the Republican primary, that is except P. M. Casey, the candidate for state treasurer, who filed as a Democrat. He sailed through the Democratic primary but lost by 200 votes in the general election.
All future League candidates got the message. None ever filed in another Democratic primary until 1956 when the NPL state convention ordered all of its candidates to file in the Democratic primary.
With the Nonpartisan League tugging one way and the United Republicans pulling the other, the League split, with the “Insurgents” going to the Democrats and the “Old Guard” going to the United Republican Party. Thus, the 2-party system was born.
The whole movement took nine years. It was slow, frustrating and time consuming, something that those proposing a new NPL need to bear in mind.
Before 1956, the North Dakota Democratic Party was nothing but a patronage organization that waited for the election of a national Democratic administration that could dole out political jobs for Democrats in North Dakota.
There was no party-building.
When the League and Democrats teamed up in 1956, the general impression was that the League contributed the most to the marriage. That is why the combination was called the NPL-Democratic Party for years after the merger.
For a variety of reasons, the creation of a new Nonpartisan League faces numerous hurdles.
First, if today’s Democratic Party can’t muster the vigor to build or maintain a party, where would a new political organization get the commitment and support needed to sustain another statewide organization?
Second, the first NPL had cutting issues that were impacting a large segment of the population. Are there clear issues that would set the NPL apart from the Republican or the Democratic Parties today? What is North Dakota not doing that needs to be done? Who is hurting?
Third, it is likely that life-long Democrats would oppose a new organization that would compete in their primaries and drain off their resources.
The 1956 NPL-Democratic slate was decimated in the general election. Following that crushing defeat, some Leaguers thought about going back to an independent NPL but they were cut short by the handful of legislators who survived. It is likely that today’s legislative hopefuls would not want to see their hopes dashed by dividing the electorate and the resources.
While creation of a new NPL would be a long reach, there is a political vacuum in North Dakota politics that could attract a new kind of politician with a new strategy.
Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor and former political science professor at UND.
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