The Oil Boom and Obamacare Shaped North Dakota Politics in the 2010s

A new year and a new decade are upon us. As many of us look to the new year searching for optimism and repurposing ourselves to a better future, we often reflect on how we got here. On New Year’s Eve, I talked about how politically we got here in North Dakota. You can listen to those comments from my KFGO radio show below. In my opinion, two things shifted the course of politics in the Roughrider State. The oil boom, and the ongoing fight over the Affordable Care Act.

The oil boom not only changed the landscape of western North Dakota, it changed North Dakota’s politics. Budgets swelled with an influx of revenue from the oil extraction tax (later cut in a rushed change by the Republican majority), sales tax, and income taxes. While other states struggled from the Great Recession, North Dakota hit the jackpot in natural resources. The opportunity led to population growth.


The boom helped the state’s finances, but it also shifted the politics of the state. Those who called for responsible development were labeled “tree-huggers” and anti-oil. Both lazy arguments, but used effectively in slick campaign ads funded in-part by the energy lobbyists. Gone are the days of Art Link. Legislative campaigns that used to require a couple of thousand dollars now peaked out at over a hundred thousand dollars. The dominate interest in the Capitol became oil and energy development, pushing agriculture to the side. Even now, political leaders remain silent when oil competes with agriculture. What oil wanted, they got from North Dakota officials.

The other major factor that changed the political landscape in North Dakota was the passage and signing of the Affordable Care Act a.k.a. Obamacare on March 23, 2010. North Dakota began 2010 with a full Democratic federal delegation. We enter 2020 with a full Republican federal delegation. One can make the case it all started with the fight over Obamacare.

North Dakota’s delegation voted for the new health care law. It cost Earl Pomeroy re-election against Rick Berg. Byron Dorgan retired instead of running for re-election. As was often the case, John Hoeven was a step behind Dorgan. He ran and won the seat Dorgan held and will hold that seat until he decides not to run again. Kent Conrad also retired instead of running for re-election. Though they likely won’t ever admit it, the political toll of that Obamacare vote and the resulting shift in the mindset of North Dakota’s voters had to play a role in that decision to not seek re-election.

Heidi Heitkamp, pulled off perhaps one of the biggest political upsets in the decade when she beat an unpopular Rick Berg to take over the seat Conrad held. Heitkamp overcame the political headwinds of the still unpopular Obamacare position. Six years later, Heitkamp was defeated by Kevin Cramer whose finance chair was oil executive Harold Hamm.

Oil and Obamacare. Those are the two most prominent things in North Dakota’s political decade that has just sunset. How will they impact our politics going forward? Oil lobbyists are still very influential in North Dakota. Will the voter created Ethics Commission have any impact on how much that influence impacts state decision making? Obamacare is more popular than ever. North Dakota’s Republican leadership has gone to great lengths to mislead what their position is on health care. They can’t run from their past. It is an interesting turn that many of these same politicians rose to power attacking the law now don’t want it thrown out in the courts until AFTER the 2020 election out of fear of the electoral ramifications.

What else shaped North Dakota politics in the 2010s? DAPL? Doug Burgum beating Wayne Stenehjem? The disappearance of the Dem-NPL? Were those merely the effects of the two larger items I listed above? Give us your take.