- Associated Press - Monday, December 5, 2016

MINOT, N.D. (AP) - With Republicans now at the helm of federal government, the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party is hoping to come out from under the shadow of its national party leaders and re-establish its identity.

Democrats say their candidates have been linked, often unfairly, to national party positions on matters from gun control to restricting coal use, that haven’t been generally popular in North Dakota. In the last eight years, Democrats have been gradually shut out of state offices and will go into the 2017 legislative session holding only 13 of 94 House seats and nine of 47 Senate seats. Democrats lost 11 House seats and six Senate seats in the 2016 election, The Minot Daily News (https://bit.ly/2fXBWKZ ) reported.

“So many outside forces weighed in on this election,” said Kenton Onstad of Parshall, who lost his House seat in the Nov. 8 election shake-up. “You really get tied to the national party. Our own state party is so different from the national.”

Onstad said state Democrats need to do a better job of defining their issues and re-establishing their base.

The state party has set up a series of meetings across the state to talk to candidates, volunteers and supporters to digest what happened in this past election and plan a path forward. A session to gather input and feedback in Minot is scheduled in December.

Minot attorney AJ Schultz, who ran as a Democrat in District 40, had hoped to capture one of two open House seats after Republican incumbents decided not to run.

“I am not a party insider. I decided that I was going to run based on my issues, not necessarily on party ideology,” he said. “As far as the campaign, I knocked on 2,500 doors and I didn’t get a single person who said I had bad ideas.”

Yet the election results gave him less than half the votes of the Republican winners.

“My assumption is that people came out to vote against Hillary Clinton, and they went straight down the ticket,” he said. “There was a down-ballot massacre.”

“A lot of this was a wave election,” agreed Party Chairwoman Rep. Kylie Oversen of Grand Forks, who lost her bid for re-election. Her district had gone with President Obama in 2008 and 2012 but favored Republican Donald Trump in 2016. That Republican shift carried down the ballot.

Oversen noted the party still holds to its core values but it will be talking about refining its message and finding new ways to get that message out in light of the election results.

Onstad said a change in administration in Washington and the budget troubles facing North Dakota’s Republican majority should create a new environment for the state’s Democrats in the next election cycle in two years. Democrats need to be prepared to voice the party’s values when budget cuts and property-tax hikes occur because these are issues that shift public sentiment, he said.

Onstad, who believes his party has hit rock bottom, expects things to look up in the next two to four years.

However, long-time legislator David O’Connell of Lansford, who lost his Senate seat in the recent election, sees a rebound taking time. Coming into office on a Democrat wave and out on a Republican wave, O’Connell said the tide will turn again. How soon that happens may depend on how well Republicans lead, he said. Too much dominance can be party’s downfall, he noted.

“That’s when the people start to rebel again and start looking for something new,” he said.

He also suggests Democrats need to regroup if they hope to get back to where they were when Team North Dakota - Sens. Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad and Congressman Earl Pomeroy - were at the top of the ticket. Pomeroy was defeated in 2010, Dorgan did not seek re-election in 2010 and Conrad did not seek re-election in 2012.

“There wasn’t anybody at the top of the ticket that had any name recognition at all,” O’Connell said of the 2016 election.

Democrats had good years when Dorgan and Conrad were out in the communities, putting a face on the party and grooming new party members from the grassroots, he said. With their and Pomeroy’s departure, the Democratic-NPL Party began to disintegrate. As for the grooming that once occurred, O’Connell said, “Now we don’t have anybody doing that for the local people.”

Democrats will need to rebuild from scratch and do it without the financial resources that flow more freely when a party is winning, he said. To do that, the party must stay in touch with the millennial generation, he said.

Oversen said the party has reached out to millennials.

“I don’t think it’s a demographic that we missed entirely. A good number of our candidates, and the cycle before that, were millennials and young people. We do have a lot of younger people who are engaged and running for office and volunteering for campaigns,” she said.

However, she said, the engagement that millennials had with the presidential candidates didn’t translate to engagement with state and local candidates.

“That will be part of our conversation moving forward. How do we target millennials - and any group of voters we think we missed?” Oversen said. “We need to change and find new ways to engage people in the state and refine our message, but again, we know a lot of what happened this year was so impacted by the national race in ways we didn’t expect.”

Oversen noted Democrats were slipping at the local ballot box even before Dorgan, Conrad and Pomeroy left office, indicating N.D. Democrats may have grown a bit complacent.

“That’s not a generalization for everybody, but I think a lot of people grew too comfortable,” she said.

After the 2016 election season, in which Democrats struggled to fill statewide candidate slots and struggled even harder to finance their campaigns, Oversen sees hopeful signs that the party is re-awakening.

“I have actually had more people reach out and get more involved since Election Day,” she said.

A lot of the support that the former Democratic congressional delegation brought to the party was financial, and that’s missing as the party seeks to regroup. Fundraising in the next election cycle will depend on whether U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-ND, decides to run again because a high-profile candidate at the top of the ticket generates more support, Oversen said. Heitkamp’s narrow victory in 2012 was a bright spot in the dim showing Democrats have had in recent years.

Oversen said the party has a certain amount of financial support it can count on despite the struggles.

“A lot of our long-time supporters have been through these waves before. They know that it happens and it’s part of the political process. There’s going to be ups and downs. There’s a big base of supporters we can count on who will be there no matter what,” she said.

Schultz said opportunities could again come the Democrats’ way, but they need to prepare for that time by grooming candidates now. The place to start is in nonpartisan, local races where name recognition can be built, he said.

As for himself, he said, there are other ways he can make an impact, such as getting people into addiction treatment as a defense attorney or influencing the marketplace of ideas through social media.

“I don’t think I need to be a lawmaker to make a difference in those areas,” he said.


Information from: Minot Daily News, https://www.minotdailynews.com

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