MINOT, ND — During the 2020 election cycle, the race for treasurer between Republicans Dan Johnston and Thomas Beadle in the NDGOP primary, and then between Beadle and Democrat Mark Haugen in the general election, was oddly focused on the abortion.
Much has been made about who the “pro-life” candidate in the race is. It was weird because whoever holds the position of treasurer in the state of North Dakota (that’s Beadle, in case you missed the news) has nothing to do with abortion politics.
The question of abortion should not have arisen in this race. The debate should have focused on the kinds of things the Treasurer actually does, like serving on the State Board of Investment. Instead, because American politics has become the primary locus of our national culture war, we’ve talked about abortion.
The race for Treasurer of 2020 may have been a particularly glaring example of this phenomenon, but the tendency to make every political campaign, no matter how local, no matter how hot, hot national topics permeates the discourse. American politics.
North Dakota is not immune.
Let me give you another example.
I’m going to take a swipe at state senate candidate Sean Cleary for a moment. I think he’s a great candidate who, if he defeats his opponent Ryan Eckroth in the NDGOP primary and Democrat Tracy Potter in the general election, would make a great addition to our state legislature.
But lately, there have been messaging polls around his campaign focused on issues that go well beyond those that will be ahead of the next session of our state legislature. Several readers contacted me about the poll (Cleary told me it wasn’t run by his campaign and he wasn’t sure who wrote the questions) and a few of they also sent me screenshots.
By the way, this type of poll is sometimes described by local media as a “push poll”, but that’s another thing. A “push poll” aims to skew the measure of public opinion about a particular candidate with biased questions. A messaging poll seeks to measure what kind of messages from the candidate, including what attacks on the candidate’s opponents, the voting public might prefer. The latter is what this survey is.
To defend this investigation, many questions are perfectly valid. State legislators do deal with abortion issues. Additionally, Eckroth, who Cleary faces in the NDGOP primary, has agreed to surrender his insurance license to state authorities following accusations of fraud. Whatever you think, these are relevant issues to address in a campaign.
But illegal immigration? Inflation?
These are national issues. The kind of thing that would fit a federal campaign, not a local campaign.
(Also, whoever did this survey should do a better job of editing. They forgot to remove the names of Sen. Dave Oehlke and Judy Estenson, two Republican candidates facing each other in the District 15 primary.)
It’s not like this sort of thing is unusual. You’ll hear many local race candidates, Republican and Democratic alike, talk about national issues that have little to do with the positions they’re running for.
Last week, during an interview for my candidate, Ves Marinov, candidate for the Fargo city commissioner, mentioned this, noting that some of his competitors talk about solving climate change, as if this problem could be solved by Fargo city government.
On the other hand, the reason candidates do this stuff is us. Hot-button issues such as abortion, guns and illegal immigration attract more voter interest than the real issues that state lawmakers should be talking about. Like, say, pension reform.
A local candidate who talks about pension reform, housing issues or school obligations is unlikely to get as much attention as a candidate “waving the bloody shirt” on climate change or illegal immigration.
Candidates who don’t get attention don’t win elections, and you can’t govern if you don’t win elections.
Do we need local office candidates to stay focused on local issues? Yes, absolutely, but we voters also have to want them to stay focused on local issues.