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D'Ya NoDak: Conventional Wisdom

With the North Dakota party endorsing conventions coming up in April, we’ve been pondering whether they still matter. The answer is, at best, fuzzy. But let's follow each argument.

Conventions don’t matter, because candidates can bypass them by going directly to the primary.

This is a strategy that worked for Gov. Burgum in 2016. It’s Lt. Gov. Tammy Miller’s strategy this year; when she started her campaign, she said she would not be going to the state Republican convention. Since her announcement, Miller has been on the offensive with a series of highly produced ads for TV and online. She’s betting she can appeal to a broader base in the primary (and probably spend money more judiciously with a mass marketing campaign).

It’s a strategy former state senator Tom Campbell is betting on too for his bid to win North Dakota’s lone U.S. House seat — and after Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak announced she would run in the primary if she didn’t get the nomination.

Conventions do matter, because they can show a unified front to voters and throw the collective party weight behind one candidate.

Conventions are still part of the architecture of political power in North Dakota: some candidates “pack” conventions by mobilizing support from the local district level.

By many accounts, that’s what happened when John Hoeven first won the GOP nomination for Governor. His opponent was then-Senate Majority Leader Gary Nelson. The conventional wisdom (pun intended) was that Nelson had the support of rank-and-file Republicans, and that Hoeven was more of a Democrat in Republican clothing. (He had said to reporters earlier that he considered running for Governor as a Democrat.)

When the convention began, it was clear there were a lot of new faces in the crowd — delegates from the local district conventions turned out for Hoeven. He won on the first ballot, then won the general election. Nelson didn’t challenge Hoeven in the primary.

Jump ahead to 2022. Hoeven was seeking re-election to the US Senate. He was challenged by then Rep. Rick Becker, who had organized his supporters to run for delegate status in the district conventions. It was a tight race at the state convention, but Hoeven won on the first ballot. Becker didn’t go to the primary; he opted instead to run as an independent in the general election. He is disqualified from seeking the GOP nomination this year.

This year’s GOP convention matters, because the party faithful have a proposed rule that would exclude candidates from state party support if they skip the convention.

Usually convention governance is a snooze fest, but the NDGOP convention promises to be consequential, because if this proposed rule is adopted, it will cut funding off for candidates who skip the convention, aren’t nominated and win the primary. It will take a two-thirds vote of the convention goers to change the rule — and it would affect the current election cycle.

Sign up to receive my weekly D'Ya NoDak newsletter here — I'll be sending an email each week leading up to the North Dakota GOP and Democratic-NPL conventions.