Republicans have historically been the dominant political engine in North Dakota, but since the onset of the tea party movement, a philosophical divide has been driving a wedge through the party.
This year’s state and federal candidates represent the warring factions of the Republicans’ loyal base and the rebelling-yet-passionate conservatives who feel the party establishment no longer represents their limited-government principles.
As North Dakota Republicans gather this weekend in Bismarck to endorse a slate of candidates, the party’s in-fighting will likely take a backseat to the energy and enthusiasm sparked by political conventions, especially one in which half of the races are contested.
With 1,940 delegates registered – 70 percent more than the last presidential election year in 2008 – party officials are gearing up for what could be their biggest convention ever.
“The level of excitement within our entire party could not be higher, and it will be on full display in Bismarck,” party spokesman Matt Becker said. “This convention is going to be a blockbuster from start to finish.”
Despite the surface enthusiasm, a pall could still linger among the festivities.
U.S. House candidate Kevin Cramer and U.S. Senate candidate Duane Sand both believe the Republican nominations for their 2012 races should be decided by statewide Republican supporters instead of convention delegates.
Like-minded conservatives support their bold and unprecedented moves.
“The establishment is not happy, but you know, you couldn’t walk into a more lopsided process,” Sand said Thursday, two days after he announced his plans to skip the convention.
Unimpeded by Cramer’s and Sand’s decisions, Republicans will go forward with their traditional selection process, warning candidates who choose not to participate that they “are really doing so at their own peril.”
“This is a process we’re so proud of,” Becker said. “The convention really allows candidates who don’t have as much recognition across the state or as much in the way of resources to get that party backing.”
“I think (Sand and Cramer have) decided that the convention was not going to produce the results that they wanted, so they decided to go outside their own process,” Becker added.
The party endorsement process started with 60 or so statewide district conventions two months ago.
Becker said such a thorough vetting forces candidates to meet face-to-face with potential delegates and talk about the issues.
“It’s something we still value based on our principles,” Becker said, adding: “Anyone who chooses to run outside of that is going to have a much steeper hill to climb to have success in the primary.”
Dissatisfied Republicans say the party’s principles have changed: New blood isn’t as welcome among established candidates or the party elite.
“It’s just so over the top,” Sand said of the convention process. “Usually, you go into it not knowing who’s going to do what and thinking you’re going to deliver your speech and then the delegates will decide. But it’s so clearly being advertised by the establishment who they support.”
Sand is challenging Rep. Rick Berg for the GOP nomination in the U.S. Senate race. Because of Berg’s status as a sitting congressman and his success two years ago in knocking off a longtime Democratic incumbent, he’s been considered a shoe-in for the party’s endorsement.
With Sand now bypassing the convention, Berg is guaranteed the party’s ceremonial endorsement.
Sand will still have a minimal presence in Bismarck apart from the convention proceedings.
He has tapped former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain to help him raise funds in Fargo and Bismarck through Saturday.
Sand said even the presidential caucus results this year reflect North Dakotans’ unhappiness with the GOP establishment.
“The establishment candidate, Mitt Romney, finished a distant third behind Rick Santorum and Ron Paul,” he said. “The base of the party is no longer where the establishment is.”
Cramer – one of six Republicans campaigning for the U.S. House – also won’t partake in the endorsement for his race.
He plans to attend convention activities today and Saturday, and as a sitting Public Service Commissioner, he’ll be given time to address the delegates about his statewide office.
Out of respect, Cramer said he’s “probably going to disappear during the House nomination” on Sunday.
“I’ll obviously be respectful of the fact that I’m not seeking their endorsement,” Cramer said, acknowledging the potentially awkward situation. “I don’t want to appear to poke them in the eye or disrespect them any more than I already have.”
Because of Sand’s and Cramer’s decisions, this weekend’s endorsements in the federal races are purely ceremonial.
The Republican Party’s official candidate will instead be decided by a statewide vote in the June 12 primary.
Republicans say the contested endorsements won’t hurt the party’s chances for victory in November. They say it’ll strengthen their fight.
“I believe that competition and carrying through the primary process makes whatever candidate is endorsed a better candidate to face off against Heidi Heitkamp,” Sand said, referring to the Democrats’ U.S. Senate candidate.
From the party’s perspective, Becker agreed the contested primaries in June won’t “create a problem for our candidates.”
“In the end, they’re going to receive the support from the vast majority of Republicans in the state,” Becker said, adding that the number of candidates this year “is a huge boost for the party.”
“After our convention, when we’re at a point where we can endorse a candidate for each race, you’re going to see a great unification of our North Dakota Republicans for the candidates,” he said.