As Republican North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem launches his campaign for governor this week, an associate professor of political science says the Democratic-NPL Party should be running scared.
“If I’m in the Democratic Party, I’d be somewhat scared," said Robert Wood, of the University of North Dakota.
Stenehjem has the advantages of statewide name recognition and previously wide election margins, said Wood, who points out that the attorney general has been an incumbent during a period of economic strength. In 2000, Stenehjem earned 55.7 percent of the vote; his lowest margin of victory since was 68.9 percent in 2006.
“Voters are pretty happy with the status quo when the economy’s doing well,” said Wood, adding that it is critical for Democrats to have a strong candidate and, when Sen. Heitkamp, D-N.D., opted out of running, it was a missed opportunity.
However, Stenehjem, 62, says he’s taking nothing for granted in his gubernatorial bid, which he’ll launch Tuesday with a series of statewide rallies.
Party officials say they see him as a strong candidate in a contested nomination fight at the state convention in April while Democrats see an uphill battle to compete, let alone defeat him, in a potential general election matchup.
“If we’re going to run a candidate against a candidate like Wayne Stenehjem, we know it’s an uphill battle,” North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party Chairwoman Kylie Oversen said.
The party will need a candidate willing to aggressively press Stenehjem on his record as well as policy issues, such as the economy and oil development, she said. Of course, having a small bench and having not held the office since 1992 poses major challenges for the party.
Stenehjem first won election to the state House in 1976 before being elected to the state Senate in 1980, where he remained until 2000, when he won the attorney general’s race.
“I’ve been fortunate to be able to use it (my talents) in the area of public service. (But) you can’t take anything for granted," said Stenehjem, a Mohall native who graduated from the University of North Dakota School of Law in 1977. He’s married and has one son.
Stenehjem’s campaign begins Tuesday with rallies in Grand Forks, Fargo and Bismarck. He’ll then have Wednesday rallies in Minot and Dickinson, with a final event Nov. 30 in Williston.
Stenehjem, the longest-serving attorney general in state history, said his main platform issues include economic development, continued diversification of the state’s economy and addressing a growing prison population. Public safety and education funding also will be important.
Gov. Jack Dalrymple and lawmakers have been prudent in building up strong reserves to protect against a revenue shortfall, said Stenehjem, who added that his legislative experience lends itself well to crafting a state budget.
“With the drop in the price of oil and commodity prices, we’re going to see some challenges. But I’m an optimist,” Stenehjem said. “Over the years, we’ve dealt with good times and bad economic times.”
He expects to have two or three full-time campaign staff; in the past, he hasn’t had any. A lawyer from his office departed recently to serve as his campaign manager, he said.
So far, one other Republican, Bismarck Rep. Rick Becker, has launched a campaign for the nomination.
“As long as we’re discussing ideas and not personalities, the campaign will proceed well,” Stenehjem said.
Dalrymple praised Stenehjem’s candidacy in a statement to the Tribune.
“I think Wayne Stenehjem would be an excellent governor,” Dalrymple said. “He has a great deal of experience in state government, as both a longtime state legislator and the state’s highest-ranking law enforcement official. He has shown that he is very capable of doing the job.”
North Dakota Republican Party Chairman Kelly Armstrong said the party is confident in its chances next November no matter who the endorsed candidate is. Armstrong said Becker is from the party’s more conservative wing and will differ from candidates, such as Stenehjem, on a variety of policy issues.
“There’ll be a solid policy debate,” Armstrong said.
The state GOP convention is scheduled for April 1-3 in Fargo.
“Since the attorney general indicated he was seriously considering running, we’ve been operating under the assumption that he’s running,” Oversen said.
Former North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Sarah Vogel’s consideration of entering the campaign is an exciting possibility but it remains to be seen if she or anyone else steps forward, Oversen said.