Sunday Showdown At The GOP Corral For Goehring, Estenson

It’s coming down to the short strokes for the Republican nomination battle between incumbent North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring and challenger Judy Estenson.

Goehring called me this morning to complain about my Feb. 17 column (“Who Wins?” Goehring, ND Farm Bureau Split”) in which I said he displayed “sexual insensitivity” to have female staffer walk on his back to solve a headache/back problem at a convention. The “treatment” was in a motel room, albeit in the presence of another male staffer.

The commissioner started by telling me it was “out of context, used inappropriately” to describe this as sexual. He said it was inappropriate for me to use the word “sexual” because it would imply “sexual harassment,” a word that I did not use.  I told him Commissioner Goehring I don’t think the two things are the same. I also told him I personally thought the move was a stupid move for a public servant and told him I think he will pay a political price for it.

He will.

He has already.

I don’t think this is the main issue for the North Dakota Farm Bureau, which is backing Estenson, but it is an issue that will play well for any opponent – either in a Republican primary, or in a general election. It will be something that will be easy to allude to without coming out and saying it.

The North Dakota Republican party reportedly had 750 delegates registered last week, but on Monday – the last day to register – there were 1,000, according my Republican source. Besides raising havoc with the Republicans’ multi-page convention booklet, it could also mean a fight for motel rooms in Minot, where the convention is scheduled this weekend. The ag commissioner race is not decided until Sunday.

The delegate source  – a strong Goehring supporter, and one who remembers the Kent Jones/Keith Bjerke split in 1996 that led to a Sarah Vogel’s victory – thinks Farm Bureau has been “sandbagging,” or hiding their delegate support.

He notes that to be a member of the Republican party, you must only pay the $36.50 annual dues. Then you have to be selected as a delegate by the district. The state tells the district the number of delegates they can have in January, based on prior contributions. This time, some districts didn’t register any delegates until near the deadline of March 31.

This delegate source thinks the extra delegates are people influenced by former North Dakota Farm Bureau President Eric Aasmundstad of Devils Lake. He remembers how this procedure was done prior to the 2000 nomination of John Hoeven, who beat state Sen. Gary Nelson. That year there was a record number of delegates at about 2,000. The state party made a conscious decision in December 1999 to have a bigger convention than normal.

“In the end, it’s going to be close – within 5 to 6 percent,” the delegate says. “This ag commissioner rate is attracting another 200 to 300 delegates than normally would come to a dull convention.”

Goehring, for his part says he’s going to try to stay on message.

He won’t say he’ll go to the primary election, but I think he would if Estenson beat him. “Conventions can be stacked” and can be a “small representation of the party, whether Democrat or Republican Goerhing says. He looks to the precedent of Kevin Cramer, who beat nominee Brian Kalk for the Republican candidate for the congressional race. He also mentions Nick Spaeth, the North Dakota attorney general who went to the primary to beat Bill Heigaard for the party’s gubernatorial nod.

I think we’ll see Mr. Goehring in the primary, either way. “I would never run (in the general election in November) as an independent,” he says, repeating what he’s said before.

As I said in my column conclusion, the contest will mean either Goehring or Estenson will face a charismatic candidate. Ryan Taylor, who ran a clean candidacy as the Democrat nominee in the 2012 gubernatorial race, might qualify for that description.