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Far right tugs at North Dakota Republican Party

July 25, 2021 GMT

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — An effort to recall a Republican legislator largely over his vote to expel a fellow GOP lawmaker accused of sexually harassing women at the state Capitol is being viewed as a litmus test for party loyalty, the state GOP ’s new chairman said.

The move to recall Rep. Dwight Kiefert over his vote to oust former Rep. Luke Simons has fanned the flames of an intraparty fight that has a far-right faction seeking to control the party apparatus and replace Republicans they see as too moderate.

Perrie Schafer, who was elected chairman of the state GOP last month, has the task of repairing damage to the party’s image.

“I don’t like this infighting,” he said. “My goal is to get people rolling in the same direction.”

North Dakota Republicans wield supermajority control in the Legislature and hold every statewide office. The party, however, began splintering in the past decade with the emergence of the loosely organized Bastiat Caucus, fervent supporters of limited government and spending and privacy and gun rights.

Simons, who was expelled by the House in March, was one. The caucus has said 30 legislators paid dues in 2019, though the membership has not been publicly disclosed.

Mark Jendrysik, chairman of the University of North Dakota’s political science department, said “loyalty or purity tests” aren’t unusual in states where a party has a strong majority. He said the Kiefert recall appears to be such a test.

“If he is recalled, I really think it’s a warning to other representatives to pay attention to the more conservative” faction of the party, Jendrysik said.

Simons denied wrongdoing and complained that he wasn’t getting due process and was targeted for his political ideology.

Of 80 House Republicans, 55 voted to expel Simons. A few GOP lawmakers were formally condemned at the district level for backing the expulsion but Kiefert is the only one so far to face recall.

Kiefert said he voted to remove Simons because of his alleged inappropriate behavior toward women.

“How do you stand up for that?” said Kiefert, a farmer who represents a district in southeastern North Dakota.

The recall petition accuses Kiefert of “failing to meet the standards of a Republican” representing the district.

“I can’t imagine people wanting to recall me because I’m not a Republican,” he said.

Kiefert hardly qualifies as a moderate.

He has long pushed bills to let teachers and school workers have guns at schools. In 2015, Kiefert was among the most vocal of lawmakers who objected to having a Muslim lead prayers at the Capitol on Ash Wednesday, and insisted on having a Christian deliver the invocation instead. Also that year, he called a Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage a victory for the mentally ill.

Those incidents drew rebukes from the state GOP party.

The party is now defending Kiefert, calling the recall “a misguided attempt by a select group of individuals to thwart the democratic process for their own gain.”

Dan Johnston, who aligned himself with the far right during two terms in the Legislature, is now the party chairman in Kiefert’s district.

Johnston gave up his seat in an unsuccessful bid for state treasurer. The race got extra attention after Gov. Doug Burgum gave $25,000 to Thomas Beadle’s campaign and Johnston got the support of former President Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer.

Kiefert and others believe the recall effort is being done in part as a backdoor move to give Johnston the Legislative seat, which Johnston denied. He said the recall is an organic effort driven by local constituents

“It was an honor to serve but I have no desire to serve in that capacity again,” he said. “I’ve never seen myself as a career politician.”

Former GOP House Majority Leader Al Carlson called Kiefert “a far right-wing conservative” and said he thinks he’s being targeted as a personal vendetta.

Carlson said the Bastiat Caucus “is slowly but surely” gaining a foothold at the district level and in Bismarck, with strong grassroots organization skills.

“I wouldn’t call these guys Republicans. They’re extremists,” he said. “They are out to purge anybody who doesn’t think like they do. And all they do is vote against everything and they don’t like anything and they don’t bring any solutions.”

Jared Hendrix of Minot is seen as the architect of the group’s organizational effort in North Dakota. He was state director of Texas congressman Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential bid and worked on campaigns for Sen. Kevin Cramer and Bismarck Rep. Rick Becker, who founded the Bastiat Caucus.

Most recently, Hendrix was a campaign worker for Hazelton GOP Rep. Jeff Magrum, a vocal Simons supporter and one of several mostly far-right candidates who faced political spending by GOP Gov. Doug Burgum aimed at defeating them.

Hendrix, also a GOP district chairman, said he has nothing to do with the Kiefert recall.

He is, however, a principal in the effort to change the state constitution to impose term limits on the governor and legislators. Several state lawmakers linked to the Bastiat Caucus and some newly elected GOP district chairmen are among the measure’s sponsoring committee.

Hendrix said the state GOP party is suffering from stagnation and no clear direction. The party “doesn’t actually advance anything we actually believe in,” he said.

“If you’re not going to change mindset, you got to change the people,” Hendrix said.

Schafer, the party chairman, said Republicans have to get together or risk watching Democrats “start winning elections.”

“This agree-with-me-or-hit-the-highway mentality is not healthy,” Schafer said.