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Bismarck-Mandan legislative district races highlight split in state Republican Party

Bismarck-Mandan area voters will see multiple contested races in the upcoming Republican primary for seats in the state Legislature.

The competition highlights divides between right-wing populist elements of the state’s GOP and more traditional conservatives.

Much of the action will be in races for the state House. Only one local state Senate primary will be contested. The Democratic-NPL Party will compete for three seats in the area in November’s general election; two at the Senate and one in the House, but there will not be any local primaries for the party in the area. Terms last four years. The compensation for serving in the state Legislature is at least $205 per day at a regular, special or organizational session. It is slightly higher for those in leadership positions.

A full slate of populist challengers will face all three incumbents in one district, while two populist incumbent representatives face challenges from a more traditional pair of candidates in another. The other two area districts that have elections this year will each host three-person House races with two incumbents and one challenger — two get elected per district. In each party’s primary, two House candidates and one Senate candidate can advance per district.

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While the two factions have different stances on the government’s role on certain social issues, the bigger divide that came up in candidate interviews was spending.

The more populist politicians generally expressed a desire to rein in money going to a variety of programs, arguing it is excessive and favors interest groups, while many traditional conservatives broadly defended state budgets, pointing to North Dakota’s economic and population growth this past decade.

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State Rep. Brandon Prichard, R-Bismarck, speaks during debate on a transgender bill in the House chamber on Feb. 17, 2023.

Citizens Alliance

Though a number of both populist and traditional candidates expressed a desire to focus less on social policy in the next session if elected, one local lawmaker is citing mainly social issues as his reasons for intervening in multiple races.

State Rep. Brandon Prichard, R-Bismarck, is leading the Citizens Alliance of North Dakota, a political action committee which asked candidates to sign a pledge of 12 commitments — many dealing with hot-button issues such as abortion, transgender rights and election integrity — which he said should be something members of all political parties should agree with. He accused some incumbent lawmakers he’s challenging in Bismarck-Mandan area districts as being insufficiently conservative on social issues.

“It’s really a tool that guides you as a lawmaker on how you will act in the Legislature, and those lawmakers who break the oath, they’ll pay dearly,” Prichard said.

The efforts have resulted in a complaint at the Federal Elections Commission, and denouncement by the District 34 Republican Party where Prichard’s group sent out mailers featuring challenger David Villafana along with two other incumbent legislators but not incumbent state Rep. Todd Porter, R-Mandan. All three incumbents were endorsed by the party. The turmoil in District 34 was first reported by Forum columnist Rob Port.

Villafana told the Tribune he was not involved in the effort though he was endorsed by the Citizens Alliance.

Prichard declined to say who sat on the group’s board or if other lawmakers were involved with it beyond himself.

“Going out and opposing lawmakers, especially those with a lot of power is not something that gets you any brownie points,” he said, adding, “I will say that there are a lot of good people that are well-known and are not well-known.”


Berg and Rensch

District 8

Mike Berg, co-founder of Apex Engineering Group, and Ken Rensch, an owner of ambulance service staffing, management and consulting companies, said Prichard’s actions have led them to launch challenges against the controversial lawmaker and state Rep. SuAnn Olson, R-Baldwin, who is aligned and campaigning with Prichard. Olson and Prichard both received the District 8 GOP endorsement.

Both Berg and Rensch said they wanted to turn down the volume on social issues, arguing against some of the controversial statements Prichard has made on social media that have espoused Christian nationalist beliefs, and telling the Tribune some of Prichard’s proposed policies went beyond what they saw as the appropriate role for state government involvement in residents’ lives.

Berg did not directly address a question on whether his views on social issues were substantially different than the District 8 incumbents, though he called some of Prichard’s online statements “extreme” and said many issues could be handled more appropriately case-by-case by officials at a lower level.

Rensch said he saw some of Prichard’s statements as a “slippery slope.”

“I think you know the Constitution, the Bill of Rights have served us very well and there’s a reason they left (Christianity) out. Our country may have been founded on Christian principles, but there’s a reason they left that out,” he said.

SuAnn Olson

Rep. SuAnn Olson, R-Baldwin

Olson defended her voting record on social issues, though she said she thinks there will be less of a focus on it during this upcoming session.

Prichard said he still sees needs for reforms.

There were some divides on spending, too. Prichard and Olson both expressed a desire to bring more scrutiny to many of the grants the Legislature appropriates to state agencies, though they both expressed support for spending on basic infrastructure.

“It’s just like a little kid, you know, with $1 in their pocket and it’s burning a hole,” Olson said. “We don’t have to spend it.”

Prichard was a bit more specific.

“I believe we need to cut state spending at a minimum to the extent of 10% but I also realize we need to keep good employees. I think that we need to take a really strong look at a lot of these agencies, particularly (Department of Public Instruction) and Human Services … and cut what’s not necessary and give pay raises to those who work really hard,'” he said.

Both Berg and Rensch said money has generally been spent well, though Rensch said there were likely areas where the state needs to “tighten the reins.”

Prichard maintained special interests were behind much of the support for Berg and Rensch. He zeroed in on the money their campaigns have received from some corporate political action committees. He framed the trio of him, Olson, and state Sen. Jeff Magrum, R-Hazelton, as standing up to big business interests, especially when it comes to the controversial Summit Carbon Solutions carbon dioxide pipeline that would cross some of their district and has had trouble obtaining voluntary landowner easements. Prichard and Olson said they wanted to focus on property rights this session.

Berg and Rensch defended their support from corporate groups, arguing it was a strength given the role energy and other industries play in North Dakota‘s tax base and job market.

Berg said the main issue he sees with the Summit pipeline that needs to be addressed is safety.

“I do want to make sure anything we do policywise can’t be used against us to stop the next (oil) pipeline,” he said.

Magrum will run unopposed in the Senate primary. The District 8 Democratic-NPL Party did not field any candidates. District 8 includes regions to the north and east of Bismarck and extends down to the South Dakota border.


Justis Amundson, Dave Charles and Adam Rose

District 30

Three incumbent Republican party leaders will face challenges in District 30, which includes portions of east and south Bismarck and reaches into suburban areas south of the city.

State Sen. Diane Larson, R-Bismarck, will face Adam Rose, a property manager and member of the district Republicans’ executive committee in the Senate race. State Rep. Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck, and state Rep. Glenn Bosch, R-Bismarck, will see challenges from Dave Charles, a Navy veteran and vice chairman of the Capital Electric Cooperative Board, and Justis Amundson, a project manager for RPT Industries and the District 30 GOP chair. 

Challengers earlier this year received the endorsement of the District 30 GOP. Incumbents skipped the convention.

Incumbents noted their experience, leadership roles in the House and Senate, and desires to build consensus as part of the reason voters should send them back.

Charles and Amundson both highlighted their hope to work with others as well. They were critical of incumbents, especially when it came to state budgets. Rose did not respond to Tribune questions. The challengers have the support of Prichard’s Citizens Alliance.

Nathe said that he thinks the challengers are “a little bit more to the extreme than we are.” The other two incumbents did not directly address differences with their challengers in their comments.


Bosch, Larson and Nathe

Charles and Amundson both expressed a desire to cut spending.

“I would like to see the Legislature as a whole move away from using taxpayer dollars to benefit select special interest groups and lobbyists and instead focus on lowering taxes and getting back to funding government essentials, such as infrastructure, schools and our police departments,” Amundson said.

Nathe said the state has done a “great” job handling revenues.

“We try to watch our spending, but our state has grown tremendously in 16 years. We’ve gained over almost a quarter million people in that time. So when your state grows by that much, you’re going to have more expenses because people need help with their health care and you need to help cities growing and providing jobs,” he said.

On social issues, the three incumbents took similar, more reserved stances. 

Nathe said he preferred focusing on other issues.

“I think some things have gone a little bit too far. The book banning issues that we had last session was divisive all the way around,” he said.

Bosch said the Legislature went down the right path when it came to social issues, “and resisted the passage of the most extreme versions of culture-related legislation.”

Larson said that when controversial cultural topics are brought up they need to be debated and voted on, but her goal with these types of bills is to ensure they can “stand up to a constitutional challenge.”

Challengers did not draw much of a difference between themselves and incumbents on social issues in comments to the Tribune, though past pamphlets distributed by the trio at the District 30 Republican convention were critical of the incumbents’ record on issues including book bans, according to the North Dakota Monitor.

Amundson has expressed a desire to bring legislation on gender identity, and said he does not want to see “pornographic materials” in school libraries.

“However, addressing out-of-control spending and lowering property taxes are equally important in my mind,” he said.

Matthew Zimny, an emergency room physician at Sanford Health in Bismarck, is the sole Democratic-NPL candidate in the district. He will face the winner of the GOP Senate primary race in the fall.

david villafana.jpg

David Villafana

District 34

In the contested District 34, which largely encompasses Mandan, a series of attack ads have targeted Porter, the state representative, while also uplifting Villafana, who is running for the state House. Incumbent state Rep. Nathan Toman is also seeking an additional term but has not been the subject of attack ads. Toman did not respond to Tribune interview requests. 

Villafana said he is running, in part, because he wants to offer the district a chance to elect a new perspective “for the first time in a long time.”

The last time more than two Republicans ran in the District 34 primary was 2012, when Toman ousted his predecessor, Rae Ann Kelsch. 

Villafana, a software engineer, said he hopes to “fight for the values that matter to the people.” He said his top priorities are reducing property taxes and working to “support strong families.” He also said he supports more transparency around the state’s Legacy Fund oil tax savings account. 

When asked about his appetite for so-called culture wars legislation, Villafana said he will evaluate each issue independently, and he avoids “using any sort of label that oversimplifies complex issues.”

Many of the attacks leveled at Porter by Citizens Alliance have focused on topics such as drag shows and gender-affirming surgery, and compared Villafana’s stances with what he says are Porter’s.

Todd Porter

Rep. Todd Porter, R-Mandan

Porter said the ads are misleading of how he voted. He said he views the raft of cultural legislation that has passed in recent years as an appropriate, “constitutional” response to constituent priorities. He said his time on the House Human Services Committee means he is familiar with much of the legislation passed, though he expects that the demand for further bills will continue to exist. 

“I think that there will always be issues that people will bring up,” Porter said. “I do think that it will be more difficult to pass. I think that we’ve passed the right package of bills. And so I think that will limit and slow down a little bit of those cultural type war issues.

He also emphasized the importance of a smooth transition in the governor’s office — Gov. Doug Burgum isn’t running for a third term, and the race to replace him is ongoing — and said his work with four administrations has prepared him to build relationships with a new governor. He also highlighted the “vital” need for “using our resources to reinvest back into our own economy,” as well as his work on energy policy. He said the energy industry is essential for the state’s economic growth. 

State Sen. Justin Gerhardt, who was appointed to the role last October after his predecessor died in office, is running unopposed in the Republican primary as he seeks a full term. Joshua Johnson, an employee of Century High School and a small business owner, is the only candidate in the district’s Democratic primary for the state Senate. No Democrats are running for the state House in District 34. 


Dever, Heinert and Meier

District 32

Incumbent Republican state Reps. Pat Heinert and Lisa Meier are running for an additional four-year term in the state House, but are being challenged by Phillip Jacobs, a former legislative clerk and two-time graduate of the University of Mary. District 32 encompasses much of south Bismarck. 

Meier did not respond to a Tribune request for comment. She’s served in the Legislature since 2001 and works in sales and interior design. 

Jacobs said his experience with the legislative process and his perspective as a conservative member of Generation Z will uniquely prepare him for the role, and he’ll provide a fresh perspective for District 32 voters. He has the support of Prichard’s Citizens Alliance group.

Phillip Jacobs

Phillip Jacobs. 

He said his top policy areas are his pro-life stance and his upholding of family values in what he describes as “the breakdown of the traditional family,” though he also said he doesn’t want to make work harder for teachers and other public-facing roles that have been impacted by so-called culture wars.  Jacobs also underscored the importance of reeling in “cronyism and unnecessary spending.”  

Jacobs said he feels that it’s important for issues to be dealt with “at the lowest level possible.” He supports conserving the state’s Legacy Fund and placing strict boundaries on spending fund money. 

Heinert, a longtime lawman who first joined the House in 2016, said he stands out as a candidate because of his commitment to his work, citing his tenure as Burleigh County sheriff after working his way up in the department. 

He emphasized the importance of legislative education and mentorship to ensure new legislators can be brought up to speed in a timely manner. He also said he thinks recent steps to increase in-state investments for the Legacy Fund have resulted in increased transparency with regards to the fund’s functions.

Heinert, who chairs the state House Education Committee, said he supports a measured approach to hot-button social issues, and wants to do his due diligence to understand the potential demand for and impact of related legislation

“I do not believe in reacting in too fast of a manner to what is occurring around our country,” he said. “At this point I am not sure if we have gone too far or not far enough. We will have to look at each and every bill presented to see what problem the bill is trying to resolve.

State Sen. Dick Dever will go unchallenged in the Republican primary and November general election. Dr. Shari Orser, a Bismarck-area gynecologist, will run as the only Democrat in the state House primary, and will face off against the top two Republican vote-getters in November.

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