Dakotas' votes in the Senate mean more than most

Christopher Vondracek
Forum News Service

WASHINGTON — Jim Nichols sells his corn in South Dakota, watches the Sioux Falls television news at night, and married a Watertown, S.D., teacher.

But he votes in Minnesota. So his vote for a U.S. senator has one-fifth the statistical power it would were he living half-mile to the west, across the South Dakota border.

“I don’t think those folks over the border know what they’ve got,” said Nichols, a former Minnesota agriculture secretary under DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich, who farms now a baseball’s toss from the South Dakota-Minnesota state line outside Lake Benton. “But their two senators have more influence than our senators because they work with Trump.”

The specter of a widening political divide between more and less populated states — and its impact on the upper-chamber of Congress — continues to rankle observers who worry about the few ruling the many. This summer, prognosticator Nate Silver hypothesized on Twitter about merging the Dakotas into one state to achieve parity between urban and rural voters. Other pundits predict flipping the U.S. Senate — currently in Republican hands — from red to blue in the 2020 elections will be difficult to impossible because so many of the states that North Dakota’s junior senator Kevin Cramer called these “rectangular blank spots” lean Republican.

But the equivalence of two states is firmly entrenched in the political mind (and more importantly the U.S. Constitution), even if that means the Dakotas — at a combined population of 1.5 million compared with Minnesota’s 5.6 million, according to 2010 U.S. Census numbers — get twice as many senators as their eastern neighbor.

“I talk to visitors in D.C. and to students all the time about the Connecticut Compromise,” said Cramer, a Republican, referring to the pact between the Founding Fathers that retained a bicameral legislature, including the people’s house and the equally-represented state sovereigns. “It’s a big deal, and it’s important because, well, I got to be careful when I say this, but I’d argue we’re the moral compass out here in middle-America.”

It was the 17th amendment, ratified in 1913, that finally allowed voters to directly elect U.S. senators. Previously, each state’s legislature chose senators. The model harkened to an agrarian era in the U.S., when states operated more independently of each other, like sovereign nations.

While rumors persist Dakota Territory was split into two states in 1889 to give the Republican Party four instead of two senators, University of North Dakota political science professor Mark Jendrysik dismissed that idea.

“They thought the Dakotas would each hold 5 million people, more like Ohio or Pennsylvania,” he said.

But what’s not exactly certain is how the representation benefits the Dakotas today. In the old days, U.S. senators could curry favor with local voters by securing funding for a bridge or a heritage museum

“We used to send Democrats to D.C. to get the bacon and Republicans to Pierre to make sure we didn’t spend ours,” said Rep. Ryan Cwach, a Democrat, who represents Yankton County in the South Dakota state House. “I’m not sure that’s the case anymore.”

Since Congress ended earmarks, the direct effects of outsize influence in Washington, D.C., is harder to track. Political science professors point to saving Ellsworth Air Force Base in Rapid City, S.D., or maybe federal agriculture policy more attuned to producers. But today’s impact of a loud megaphone for rural states might be more diffused, says University of Minnesota Morris political science professor Tim Lindberg. He points, for example, to the voting bloc for more conservative judicial nominees.

“North Dakotans and South Dakotans might not see that tangible benefit applied to their local area,” said Lindberg. “A local federal judge might not overturn of Roe v. Wade, but if it comes out of one of the southern circuits, I’m guessing a North or South Dakota voter who wants to ban abortion won’t be upset.”

Any extra votes help in the U.S. Senate, which in recent years, has seen close votes on major items. From the 51-48 vote to pass Trump’s tax plan, to the 50-48 vote to appoint Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, or even the 49-51 vote that defeated Republicans’ efforts to repeal Obamacare, the four Dakota votes have been crucially important.

Media reports tend to spotlight the seeming rural-to-urban state imbalance of the Electoral College. But the Senate, say observers, is where things really tip. Factoring in the states’ relative population, a voter in Wyoming, the nation’s least populous state, has essentially 57 votes for every 1 vote as a Californian. Put another way, behind every vote cast by a U.S. senator from North or South Dakota there are a lot fewer people. But the vote — whether it’s on rural broadband or the farm bill or the next Supreme Court justice — counts the same.

This should mean Dakotans scramble for those Senate seats. Democrat Heidi Heitkamp raised more than $30 million only to lose her seat this last November. After not facing a challenger in 2010, popular Republican Sen. John Thune drew an opponent in 2016.

“If we don’t put someone else up for the Senate in 2020, I’ll run again, though I don’t want to,” said Jay Williams, a Yankton businessman and Democrat who unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Thune for his seat in 2016. “It’s just crazy not to at least challenge him given how much power that seat has.”

Certainly, no one expects Dakota voters to belly-ache about the Senate’s representational map. Moreover, Dakotans enjoy an approachability of their federal delegation that Minnesotans might not.

“It’s probably closer to what the Founding Fathers wanted in the first place,” said Sen. Mike Rounds, a South Dakota Republican. “I go home every week, and the travel time is a bear, but I pump my own gas, I buy my own groceries, folks out at the Walmart used to laugh because I bought my own dog food. But people know you, and they’re not afraid to come right up and say ‘hello’ or ask you about this or that.”

Even for Minnesotans living close to the border, the population difference means they sometimes see more of the other state’s senators.

“I probably interact more with the North Dakota senators than with the Minnesota senators,” said David Murphy, city administrator for East Grand Forks, Minn., across the Red River from Grand Forks. “I don’t know if that’s good, bad or indifferent, it just is that way because Grand Forks is about the third biggest city in the state. We just don’t get ours to show up very often.”

State populations do fluctuate. Nevada, once a small state, was admitted to the Union with roughly 40,000 people but now has more than 3 million. North Dakota has had the largest population growth in the nation by percentage (13%) between 2010 and 2018. But the Brookings Institution forecasts long-term migration trends in the U.S. from the Northeast and Midwest to warmer climates.

And political experts wonder if, as demographic divides widen, the 200-year-old framework of the Republic is sustainable.

“It’s undeniable that small states have a disproportionate amount of power in the U.S. Senate,” said Drey Samuelson, former chief of staff of the last Democrat to win statewide office in South Dakota, Sen. Tim Johnson.

Jendrysik had a more blunt warning.

“You have a situation where 10% of the population will elect over half the Senate in the next 25-30 years,” Jendrysik said. “That’s a real problem for our system. I mean think about it if you’re a Californian, you’d be really ticked off that a place with fewer people than live in Detroit get two senators.”

House Democrats will hold a hearing this month on D.C statehood. D.C.’s Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a nonvoting member of Congress, has previously offered language that would shrink the federal district to the area encompassing Congress, the White House and the National Mall, allowing the rest of the city to become the 51st state.

But such a bill is a nonstarter with most, if not all, Senate Republicans, including Cramer.

“I don’t think people really care about that back home,” Cramer said. “D.C. needs to remain neutral ground. Plus, there’s something symmetrical about 50 stars, isn’t there?”

In the meantime, Democrats looking to take back — or draw closer to even — power in the U.S. Senate in 2020 will likely need to win voters in unfriendly territory. Earlier this spring, former Sens. Heitkamp and Indiana Democrat Joe Donnelly launched a new initiative called One Country, with the hope of reconnecting with rural voters.

But the former senators have their work cut out for them. Lindberg said the days of Democratic lions in the Senate from the prairie may be a relic, like vinyl records or baseball cards in bike spokes.

“In the rise of polarization, it doesn’t matter if you’re an Alabama Republican or a North Dakota Republican, you’ll be a lot closer than a Minnesota Democrat,” said Lindberg. “That maybe wasn’t true 30, 40 years ago.”

Cramer said he’d qualify that comparison. “There’s a lot more different between a North Dakota Republican and a North Dakota Democrat than there used to be.”

But he did say there is still a little bit of Upper Midwest bonhomie still alive, especially as he watches Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar run for president.

“My wife and I were watching her on one of the Sunday shows the other day, and my wife said, ‘Hmmm, I can see why she’s popular. It’s not just that she talks like she’s from Fargo, but rather (she’s got that) common sense, that plainspokenness, that self-deprecation and not this radical stuff, even though she’s quite liberal, but my wife found herself relating as a Midwesterner.”