North Dakota and Political Change, 1940s - 1972: An Overview
North Dakota’s post-war generation experienced a political revolution. Historically, the state had been rock-solid Republican. The Democratic party was very weak. Only when the Republican party split into two warring factions could Democrats win. In 1906, 1908, and 1910, progressive reform-minded Republicans, who opposed the political bossism of Alexander McKenzie, left the party to vote for and elect Democrat John Burke to the governorship. In 1938, 1940, and 1942, conservative Republicans who opposed William Langer and his revived Nonpartisan League supported and elected Democrat John Moses.
The conservative Republicans tired of giving their support to Democrats. The seating (albeit with difficulty) of Langer in the United States Senate in 1941 left the Nonpartisan League faction of the Republican party leaderless. Taking advantage of this situation, in 1943 the conservative Republicans established the Republican Organizing Committee (ROC) to counter the NPL at election time. With the return of prosperity and the end of the Great Depression, Americans and North Dakotans were becoming more conservative. Within this context, the absence of Langer and the return of good times, the ROC in 1944-1945 wrested control of the state from the NPL and dominated North Dakota’s political agenda into the 1950s.
Nonpartisan Leaguers became disgruntled over their loss of power to the ROC. Internal bickering led to a divided group. Younger Leaguers, called insurgents, were liberal and more in tune to the policies of the Democratic party. The older and more conservative Leaguers, the old guard, increasingly had more in common with Republicans.
In 1956 the split came. The Nonpartisan League convention, controlled by insurgents, voted to place its candidates in the Democratic column. The Democrats then endorsed these candidates. The ROC held a unity convention with old-guard Leaguers. North Dakota had become a two-party state. There would be no more Republican primary-election contests. It would now be Republicans versus Democratic-NPLers in the November elections.
The tide began to turn against the Republicans. In 1958 Quentin Burdick became the first Democrat elected to the United States House of Representatives; in 1960 he went to the United States Senate. That same year Democrat William L. Guy was elected governorCan office he would hold for twelve yeas. Between 1960 and 1972 Republicans and Democrats shared political power.
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.