The Dakotas are the Bluest Red States in America. Can Democrats Win Them Back?
For the first time in decades, the twin states are now fully represented by Republicans in the U.S. House and Senate
To a layperson, or perhaps even an expert occupied more with broader political trends, North Dakota and South Dakota appear to be among the most eminently stereotypical Republican states in the country. They are large, flat, rectangular, lightly-populated states. The North hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since 1984, and the South since 1974. Both have voted for the Republican presidential candidate since 1968. Republicans have entirely controlled both statehouses since 1995, and according to Gallup’s 2017 measure of party affiliation, Republicans have a 28-point advantage over Democrats in North Dakota (second to only Wyoming) and a 17-point advantage in South Dakota. But one place Democrats have always had a foothold in Dakotan politics is in Congress. That changed earlier this year with the newest congressional class.
A review of the partisan orientation of the states over the last fifty years and voter data over the past twenty years reveals that the bluest red states (or reddest blue states?) in America are North Dakota and South Dakota — that is, the divergence in partisan preferences between the state and congressional level in these states is the widest in the country.
For the first time since the 1950s, North Dakota’s congressional representation is entirely Republican. South Dakota made the same switch in 2015 for the first time since the 1960s. What happened?
For North Dakota, Donald Trump happened. At least that’s what Heidi Heitkamp, the North Dakota Democratic senator who lost re-election last year, conveyed in a post-election interview with PBS. Despite progress she felt she made, voters were ultimately more responsive to signaling their position within the political-cultural environment that Trump has, in part, shaped. “I could go through North Dakota’s economy and show the single most important things that happened in every sector I provided leadership on and that I was able to deliver.”
Heitkamp, whose state’s agriculture-centric economy is a major exporter of soybeans, alluded to the fact that voters were willing to vote for her pro-tariff Republican rival as long as they knew Trump would still be providing aid that offset the detrimental impact of his policies on the state. Not to mention the soybeans purchased by China under the threat of tariffs hadn’t impacted that year’s harvest.
Heitkamp, the state’s former attorney general, lost her Class I Senate seat to Kevin Cramer, the state’s former at-large House representative, by ten points after winning the seat by 0.9% during President Obama’s re-election bid. The seat had been occupied by Democrats since 1960.
North Dakota Republicans have been incredibly willing to vote for and re-elect Democrats who can earn their trust, including those who have held high-profile statewide positions. Byron Dorgan, the Democrat who held the state’s Class III Senate seat for nearly thirty years, won re-election in 2004 with a greater share of the vote (68.3 percent) than President George W. Bush did (62.8 percent) when he won the state in his re-election bid the same year. Dorgan decided to not run for re-election in 2010 and was succeeded by Republican John Hoeven who won the state with 76.1 percent of the vote.
In South Dakota, the state’s Class II Senate seat flipped Republican in 2014 when Democrat Tim Johnson retired and was succeeded by former Republican governor Mike Rounds. The state’s Class III seat flipped Republican in 2004 when then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle narrowly lost re-election to the state’s at-large Republican congressman John Thune. Thune’s predecessor in the House, a Republican, is now the governor of the state. Her successor in the House is now also a Republican.
A recurrence between these two states in terms of who has the best shot as being competitive in an election for Senate or governor is if the candidate has served as each respective state’s at-large congressperson — which makes the most sense in the smallest states with only one House representative: the constituencies are the exact same. Eight out of 10 of South Dakota’s most recent senators served as representatives in the House. In North Dakota, it’s five out of 10.
Demographically, the two states are in the second quintile in proportion of white Americans. In North Dakota, Native Americans comprise about 5.4 percent of the population and 8.6 percent in South Dakota. The two are also in the second quintile by age, slightly younger than the national average. The two are also among the ten states in which there are more men than women. Interestingly, women are making the electoral decisions. Since 2000, South Dakota is among the states with the widest margin (5.9 points) by which women on average outvote men, a common occurence in states with higher proportions of men. In North Dakota, the average female outvote rate is 3.7 points.
So how do Democrats win back the Dakotas? Before the 2018 midterms, Politico Magazine published an article outling the county strongholds of each party. Kent Conrad, Heitkamp’s Democratic predecessor, is quoted in the article stressing the importance of delivering results. “That is the critical component of winning elections, showing that you can deliver. A Republican, they can sometimes get by just because an R is next to their name. But even that doesn’t last very long.”
Knowing what we now know and hearing Heitkamp’s own autopsy assessment of her loss, it either appears that Conrad was wrong — or that the kind of results North Dakotans were looking for were aid from regressive tarrifs or an eye poke in the midst of a cultural war and, at the time, the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh for whom Heitkamp voted against.
Next year, South Dakota will have its first Senate election since Trump took office. Mike Rounds is up for re-election, remains popular, and along with his colleague John Thune, has expressed carefully-worded opposition to Trump’s tariff policy by placing emphasis on Chinese retaliation not Trump’s instigation.
That said, personal electoral decisions are based largely on the candidates and tradeoffs. For the voters most invested in the culture war and who are likely to be most impacted by Trump’s trade policy, “extraeconomic factors” might be enough to make re-electing Republicans palatable particularly if their being aided through federal subsidies. Then again, winning the Dakotas has always depended on Democrats showing up with viable candidates. The chances Democrats can be competitive against Rounds (or Dusty Johnson, the state’s at-large congressperson) in 2020 will likely have to do with the candidate they put up and who the Democrats nominate for president.
Of course, for the majority of North Dakotans and South Dakotans who are not in agriculture, this may come down to doing what partisan states tend to do when their party holds the White House — become more partisan. Democrats next best chance at these six seats will probably come after Trump leaves and is succeeded by someone less occupied with cultural politics. Right now, for the Dakotas, Trump is an outlet for anger and dissent among a segment of the population who are otherwise willing to vote against their party.
If Democrats cannot eventually find a way to appeal to constituencies in the Midwest, their majorities in both the Senate and House, heavily dependent on urban states, will not be sustainable. The bright side is that if Democrats can get back to winning in North Dakota and South Dakota, they can win anywhere.
Author’s Note: I write about electoral and demographic trends among the States to provide additional context often overlooked by the national political media. I invite you to follow me on Medium.