Republican Hold on State Broken: Democrats Guy and Burdick Win
November 8, 1960
Democrat William L. Guy has easily defeated Republican Lieutenant Governor C.P. Dahl to put the first Democrat in the governor’s mansion since John Moses, twenty years ago. And, in a special election Democrat Quentin Burdick, who gained a U.S. House seat in 1958, narrowly won a U.S. Senate seat over Governor John E. Davis, 104,593 to 103,593 votes, to fill the vacancy left by the death of William Langer.
What accounts for this surge in the Democratic party—a party which fundamentally has been weak in North Dakota? How did the Democrats break the Republican hold on North Dakota? The answers are complicated.
Historically, Democrats have won important political positions only when some Republicans, for whatever reason, desert their party and cast votes for Democrats. Democrat John Burke won gubernatorial elections in 1906, 1908, and 1910 because progressive Republicans voted to rid the state of Boss Alexander McKenzie’s power. Democrat John Moses carried the governorship in 1938, 1940, and 1942, and won a U.S. Senate seat in 1944 because conservative Republicans refused to support Langer or his Nonpartisan League candidates.
The Republican party, since the organization of the Nonpartisan League before World War I, has been divided between liberals (the NPL) and moderate/conservatives (the IVA and then the ROC). North Dakota has been a one-party state with two opposing factions trying to control the Republican party. This increasingly has caused friction in North Dakota’s political world.
The ROC Republicans have held the power since World War II. Fred Aandahl was reelected as governor in 1946 and 1948. Mayville farmer and ROCer Norman Brunsdale won the governorship in 1950, 1952, and 1954. Loyal ROC Republican John E. Davis captured the governorship in 1956 and 1958. Republicans, ROC and NPL, have held the other state offices and controlled the legislatures.
Gradually a split began to develop within the Nonpartisan League. Traditional Langerites, “the old guard,” became more conservative and had more and more in common with the ROC. Younger NPL members, the “insurgents,” were becoming increasingly disenchanted with the “old guard” and closer in philosophy to the Democratic party.
Sensing the split, ROC leadership began to hold out overtures to the NPL’s “old guard,” hoping that North Dakota would finally move toward a two-party system. When Norman Brunsdale ran for reelection in 1954, he encouraged “old guard” NPLers to vote for him because, in his words, they were “Republicans at heart.” In that same election the NPL “insurgents” supported Democratic candidates who were running against ROC Republicans.
The split in the NPL occurred two years later. In March 1956, the Nonpartisan League convention voted to file its candidates in the Democratic column and drew up a liberal platform. Of course, “old guard” NPLers did not attend the convention; they unified with the ROC to form the Republican party. The Democrats accepted the “insurgent” NPL candidates and platform. The merger of the “insurgent’ NPL with the Democratic party was complete. North Dakota was becoming a two-party state: Republicans versus Democrats.
Although the Democratic-NPL party scored no substantial victories in 1956, in 1958 it elected Fargo Attorney Quentin Burdick, the son of retiring Congressman Usher Burdick, to the United States House of Representatives and increased North Dakota legislative membership from five in 1955 to 67 in 1959.
Finally, this year the “insurgent” NPL-Democratic merger has paid off. Although the state legislature and many state offices remain in Republican control, North Dakotans have sent a Democrat to the senate in Washington and a Democrat to the governor’s office in Bismarck.
By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton
Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.