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Democrats appear to gain three seats in ND Legislature as GOP leader Carlson is ousted

North Dakota House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, gestures during a committee meeting at the state Capitol in Bismarck Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. John Hageman / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — North Dakota Democrats made slight gains in the state Legislature Tuesday, Nov. 6, but helped knock off House Majority Leader Al Carlson, setting off an intraparty race for his post.

Republicans maintained supermajorities in both chambers as Democrats added one seat in the state Senate and two in the House. Two races, however, were subject to a possible recount.

If those results hold, Democrats would hold 10 of 47 Senate seats and 15 of the 94 House seats.

The Democratic House seat gains were one in Fargo where Ruth Buffalo defeated longtime state Rep. Randy Boehning in District 27 in south Fargo and the other was Matt Eidson of Grand Forks in District 43, who still faces a possible recount in his race. State Rep. Rich S. Becker of Grand Forks was defeated in that race.

In the Senate, in that same Grand Forks district, Democrat JoNell Bakke defeated two-term state Sen. Lonnie Laffen by a 53 percent to 47 percent margin.

Farther south, there could be another Democratic Senate pickup as Republican state Sen. Larry Luick was clinging to a 24-vote margin over Democrat Perry Miller with a possible recount ahead in the district that runs along the Red River from southern Cass County to Richland County and the city of Wahpeton.

Bismarck Democratic Sen. Erin Oban, who won re-election Tuesday, called the legislative races a “bittersweet” result after U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp lost her bid for a second term to Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer. Republicans now hold all statewide offices in reliably red North Dakota.

“We go into elections knowing that it’s an uphill climb in what feels like 10 feet of snow and the wind in our faces,” Oban said.

But a small shift in the Legislature's political makeup belied a major shakeup in GOP leadership. Carlson came in last place among four candidates for two House seats in Fargo’s District 41. Republican newcomer Michelle Strinden and Democratic incumbent Pamela Anderson came out on top.

House Republicans will pick a new leader in less than a week, but Bismarck Rep. Mike Nathe, Minot Rep. Dan Ruby and Carrington Rep. Chet Pollert said Wednesday they were running for the post.

Carlson has served in the Legislature since 1993 and as majority leader since 2008.

Pollert expressed disappointment in Carlson’s loss.

“I thought he was a really good leader, and that’s probably what kind of cost him the election,” he said. “Because he had to take positions for the whole state that maybe Fargo didn’t like sometimes.”

Ruby commended Carlson but said he’d like to see improved relations with the Republican-controlled Senate.

“We sometimes seem to be seen as butting heads more than we probably need to be,” he said.

Carlson didn’t return a voicemail seeking comment Wednesday.

House Minority Leader Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, said the change in Republican leadership presents an opportunity for the two parties to create “new traditions, new cooperation (and) eliminate some partisanship in the House.”

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, a Dickinson Republican who won re-election Tuesday, said slight changes in legislative makeup would mean business as usual for the Senate, where he said the two parties have a sturdy working relationship.

“They represent people in North Dakota, too,” Wardner said of Democrats.

In the two possible recounts on the eastern edge of the state, an automatic recount can occur when there's a difference of half a percent. Candidates can demand and pay for a recount if there's a difference of 2 percent or less.

In the possible House recount in District 43 in Grand Forks, Eidson was ahead of Republican Ben Olson by just 32 votes which would trigger an automatic recount after canvassing of the votes is completed. Eidson had 2,248 votes or 24.5 percent, while Olson had 2,216 or 24.1 percent. If Eidson’s lead holds, the two seats in the Grand Forks district would be in the hands of Democrats as Mary Adams took the top spot in the race with 2,584 votes or 28.1 percent. Either way Republican Becker, who was in his first term, was defeated.

In the possible state Senate recount in District 25, Luick, who has served two terms, had 3,151 votes or 50.1 percent while challenger Perry Miller had 3,127 or 49.7 percent. Votes will also have to be canvassed in that race before a recount is likely done.

Reporter Barry Amundson contributed to this report

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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