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N.D. GOP Expecting Competitive House Race

ZUMA Press/Newscom
Freshman Rep. Rick Berg has been serving just a few months. But the Republican is likely to jump into North Dakota’s Senate race, prompting a free-for-all contest for his seat.

Some House Members wait decades for a shot at an open Senate seat. Freshman Rep. Rick Berg (R) may have to wait only a few months.

North Dakota Republicans expect a Berg Senate candidacy — now considered to be highly likely, although not yet official — to essentially clear the field, but his pending departure from the House would also spark a free-for-all race for his briefly held at-large seat.

For the past two decades, Democrats have maintained a stronghold on North Dakota’s three Congressional offices. And since two of those seats will likely be open-seat contests next year, there’s a long line of local GOP politicians waiting for their chance to run — enough candidates that the Republican Party might have a hard-fought convention battle for the first time in several years.

“There will be a free-for-all for the House seat,” said Patrick Davis, a Republican consultant who has worked extensively in North Dakota. “It’s been many years since we had a multi-person competitive race for the House seat in North Dakota, but it too will be decided most likely at the convention in Bismarck next year.”

Although Berg isn’t officially in the race for the seat of retiring Sen. Kent Conrad (D), prospective candidates are already expressing interest in the Republican freshman’s current gig. State House Majority Leader Al Carlson (R) told a local radio station that he’s encouraging Berg to run for the Senate and, in turn, that he’s considering a bid for the House.

Tax Commissioner Cory Fong (R) told Roll Call on Monday that he’s supporting Berg’s potential Senate bid and that if Berg runs, he’ll consider running for the at-large seat.

“If he chose to do that, and that left the House seat open, I’m thinking about it,” Fong said. “I’ve been considering it, but I think it’s early. A lot of it depends and hinges on what Rick decides to do.”

Not surprisingly, some of the candidates who have been mentioned as possible contenders for Senate also made the short list of potential candidates for the House seat. Local Republicans also mentioned state Sen. Tony Grindberg and state Treasurer Kelly Schmidt as possible House candidates should Berg run.

After Berg gets in, it’s highly likely that anyone considering a bid for Senate will opt to run for the House seat instead. After all, any money they raise for the Senate race can be easily transferred to the House race.

“There are definitely some people who would do that,” state Republican Party Chairman Stan Stein said. “It’s going to be an exciting few months here.”

However, Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk (R) told Roll Call that won’t be the case for him. The only announced candidate in the Senate race, Kalk declared: “We’re in it to win — period, end of sentence.” He added he will “absolutely not” run for the House if Berg runs for Senate.

Robert Harms, a local tea party leader and former state GOP treasurer, was primarily considering the Senate race until a few weeks ago. Now he’s looking at both races and expects to make a decision by the end of summer. He called Berg “a good friend” but stopped short of saying he would not run against him in a primary.

“Rick’s attitude, as is mine, is that competition in any of those races is a good thing,” Harms said. “Competition produces a better candidate and a better public servant.”

Berg already has one political enemy: the conservative Club for Growth, which takes positions in party primaries.

The group last week said voters “should demand better” than Berg for Senate given their criticism of several spending votes he’s taken since coming to Washington, D.C.

In all likelihood, the party’s GOP nominee will be picked at its March convention in Bismarck. At the convention, at least 1,200 delegates from 47 state legislative districts will endure what is likely to be several rounds of balloting to pick their nominee by majority vote.

To prepare for the convention, candidates will often spend many of the preceding months trekking through small towns in the frigid North Dakota winter to speak to delegates.

Paul Wilson, a Republican consultant who has attended every North Dakota convention for two decades, said it’s highly unusual for a candidate to buck the party pick at the convention and run in the primary. 

“You drive around night after night, meeting after meeting, speaking to delegates,” Wilson said. “Having this long, drawn-out, deep-winter process, they don’t take kindly to you saying, ‘Oh, and I’m going to go on and run in the primary.’”

“It’s quite the process, especially this time,” Wilson continued. “Because now, for the first time, you have a full-throated race with people realizing that ‘if I get the nomination, I could be the Congressman.’ This time will be much different.”

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