- Associated Press - Sunday, February 7, 2016

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Jed Hanson grew up in a conservative household in a conservative town in a conservative state, but didn’t feel much of a connection to the Republican Party that has dominated North Dakota’s political scene for decades.

As he neared adulthood, Hanson said, he was bothered by what he considered Republicans’ anti-abortion rhetoric, lack of openness to the LGBT community, lack of empathy for debt-riddled college students and opposition to federal health care reform.

“This generation has been raised in a melting pot, and it’s very worrisome to hear that from a majority party,” said Hanson, 20, now a junior studying political science and public administration at the University of North Dakota. “The Democratic Party holds the principles of my generation.”

Hanson, executive director of the College Democrats of North Dakota, is now working to be part of what he and others hope will be a resurgence of the party that has endured decades of doldrums. They’re pinning their hopes on local activism and a boost from the younger generation, though it likely will be a years-long process that won’t provide many immediate benefits.

Just two months before the Democrat-NPL Party’s endorsing convention, it has no announced candidates for statewide offices, including governor. Their top hopes, U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and former state Agriculture Commissioner Sarah Vogel, weighed runs for governor but ultimately rejected the idea.

The lack of a solid candidate for state government’s top office continues a long slump for Democrats in North Dakota, a rural farming state that hasn’t backed a Democratic U.S. presidential candidate since the 1960s. The party hasn’t had a majority in the state House or Senate or held the governor’s office since the early 1990s. The stranglehold on the state’s three U.S. Congress seats that Democrats enjoyed for two decades with prairie populists Kent Conrad, Byron Dorgan and Earl Pomeroy - dubbed “Team North Dakota” - evaporated a few years ago as they departed from Washington.

“Our bench is deeper,” said Republican Party Chairman Kelly Armstrong, who cited that party’s long history of fiscal conservancy, tax relief and business-friendly regulation in North Dakota as reasons for its vitality. “I definitely like our position.”

Democrats say they are poised for better things, with the recent formation of two statewide youth organizations and a focus on local activism and policies they think matter to the current generation, such as LGBT rights, and affordable health care and education.

“We have a lot of ideas that I think are on the forefront of what young people and North Dakotans want,” said Grant Hauschild, 26, who is running for a state House seat in Grand Forks and is a board member of New Generation North Dakota, a Democratic group of college students and young professionals that was formed about five years ago.

Some veteran Democrats think that’s the right track, but they also say it will be an uphill battle to rebuild a party that has been mostly insignificant in recent years.

Democrats have struggled because they’ve had difficulty finding candidates willing to go up against entrenched GOP incumbents, they’ve been handicapped by good economic times before the recent oil slowdown, they haven’t focused on building a solid organization from the precinct level up and they’ve failed to effectively articulate policy differences, said Chuck Fleming, chief of staff for former Gov. George A. Sinner, who was in office from 1985-92 and was the last Democrat to hold the office.

“When you combine those things … it produces negative results at the polls,” Fleming said.

Lloyd Omdahl, who was lieutenant governor under Sinner and made his own run in 1996, said Republicans have formidable incumbents. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, for example, the top money-raiser among three Republicans running, won his last election with nearly 75 percent of the vote.

But Democrats also have let the party’s strength erode, according to Omdahl.

“The party structurally and philosophically has been on the decline for a couple of decades now,” he said. “You don’t have a lot of enthusiasm among people when you’re running for an office that’s a long shot.”

Democratic Party Chairwoman Kylie Oversen acknowledged that “we’re in a red cycle and we have been for a long time” and that Vogel’s recent decision not to run was another setback. She also said the party was guilty of complacency when “Team North Dakota” was in Congress.

The party is putting a renewed focus on local races, to build strength and nurture future leaders at the state level.

“We’re looking at how we can support progressive candidates in those races. That is something the party hasn’t done for a long time,” Oversen said. “We’re trying to take control back and rebuild from the ground up.”

That will include enlisting the younger generation, said Oversen, herself only 27. In addition to the New Generation group, college students in Fargo, Grand Forks, Bismarck and Dickinson in 2014 organized the College Democrats of North Dakota.

The party’s difficulties in recent decades don’t discourage young activists, said Hanson, the UND student. Democrats are taking the reins on such issues as tuition capping, affordable health care and diversity, things that are important to young people, and that is drawing them to the party, he said.

“I’m hearing nothing but positive remarks about what the Democratic Party is doing,” he said. “Within two to 10 years we’ll have a much stronger organization.”

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