A pro-abortion access Miss America roils North Dakota House race with independent bid

·9 min read
A pro-abortion access Miss America roils North Dakota House race with independent bid

In November, there won't be a Democrat running against incumbent GOP Rep. Kelly Armstrong for North Dakota's sole congressional seat. The former nominee, Mark Haugen, announced earlier this month that he would drop out of the race due to what he called pressure from top members of his party to make room for Cara Mund, a 28-year-old former Republican congressional intern and 2018 Miss America who last week officially qualified for the race as a pro-abortion access independent.

The details of Mund's late bid were surprising for political observers, especially when big-name North Dakota Democrats suggested their candidate leave the race as she jumped in.

But it's her candidacy, some of those same state Democrats say, that reflects a more important reality: After the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the politics of abortion access have roiled races even in deeply conservative parts of the country -- and abortion supporters appear increasingly galvanized while abortion opponents have seen some of their potential electoral victories, in Kansas and elsewhere, limited.

The big question is what will happen in November, when Democrats hope to protect their fragile majorities in the House and Senate from a resurgent GOP.

A victory for political newcomer Mund against the well-funded, two-term Armstrong -- switching the seat from a Republican lawmaker to an independent -- would be seen as a win, even as state Democrats insist they will have no role supporting her.

Armstrong, who opposes abortion, last won his seat with 69% of the vote.

"This cycle isn't really the cycle for pro-life Democrats," the state's party chairman, Patrick Hart, told ABC News. "We had a long talk about viability, and in the end, Mark decided to drop out of the race."

PHOTO: Supporters of Value Them Both, a constitutional amendment that would remove language guaranteeing the right to an abortion from the Kansas state constitution, rally before campaigning in Shawnee, Kansas, July 30, 2022. (Caitlin Wilson/AFP via Getty Images, FILE)
PHOTO: Supporters of Value Them Both, a constitutional amendment that would remove language guaranteeing the right to an abortion from the Kansas state constitution, rally before campaigning in Shawnee, Kansas, July 30, 2022. (Caitlin Wilson/AFP via Getty Images, FILE)

In early August, 59% of voters in historically Republican Kansas voted against an amendment that would strip abortion rights from the state constitution. And in Alaska, Mary Peltola -- after also campaigning on abortion access -- became the first Democrat in decades to win the state's House seat over former governor and Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

Then, in another special election -- this one for New York's 19th District, a longtime swing seat -- Democrat Pat Ryan won after largely campaigning on a pro-abortion rights message against Republican Marc Molinaro.

"Really, as we look what happened in Kansas and Alaska -- there is a lot of energy for women's health," Hart said. "And we'll see what happens in North Dakota at the ballot box this fall."

Mund makes an entrance

On Sept. 3, two months ahead of November's midterms, Haugen had a jarring Saturday morning breakfast meeting with Hart.

A few hours later, Haugen said that he received a call from North Dakota's former Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy. Shortly after that, he said, he was contacted by the state's former Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad.

According to Haugen, all three suggested that he should drop out of the race. Pomeroy later told the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead that he "didn't lean on him [Haugen]" to drop out, but noted that in their conversation, he wanted to "maximize the contrast with the incumbent." (Conrad's office did not respond to a request for comment.)

Haugen announced the next day that he would quit. Last week, Mund qualified to appear on the November ballot against Armstrong.

"They want to give a clear shot for Cara Mund to be able to go up against Kelly Armstrong in the race," Haugen said in an interview with ABC News. "I could have stayed in the race, but I just didn't see a viable path to victory now with much of my base kind of not there."

Mund, with a nominal war chest and no party backing, would need to earn a wild-card victory.

She told ABC News that she's never been contacted by leading state Democrats like Conrad, Hart or Pomeroy, and she has no expectations of an endorsement or financial backing from the state party.

Hart said Democrats do not plan on supporting Mund and do not plan on putting up another candidate in the race.

Other North Dakota Democrats are watching Mund with interest -- but not yet open arms.

"I'm saddened because there will not be a Democratic-NPL (North Dakota Democratic-Nonpartisan League Party) candidate on the ballot. If we are going to rebuild the two party system in Red States like North Dakota we need to run Democratic-NPL candidates. Plus, Mark has been a warrior for the Democratic-NPL brand and his willingness to take on a tough 'red state' race cannot be under appreciated," former North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who has not endorsed Mund, said in a statement to ABC News.

PHOTO:  North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, left, greets Miss America 2018 Cara Mund as brothers Joshua and Isaac Miller look on at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference in Bismarck, N.D., May 23, 2018.  (Tom Stromme/The Bismarck Tribune via AP, FILE)
PHOTO: North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, left, greets Miss America 2018 Cara Mund as brothers Joshua and Isaac Miller look on at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference in Bismarck, N.D., May 23, 2018. (Tom Stromme/The Bismarck Tribune via AP, FILE)

But Heitkamp said that Mund "represents a new generation of leaders who do not want to be defined by allegiance to the two party system. This is 'new generational energy" not only in North Dakota but nationwide."

"Where I appreciate her position on reproductive health care, I will need to learn more about her position on Native American Rights, income and wealth disparity, health care and investment in education before I consider an endorsement." Heitkamp said.

Haugen said his own conversations with some of North Dakota's top Democrats featured mentions of Alaska and Kansas, where the party saw persuasive signs of how the issue of abortion was motivating voters even in deep-red states.

Haugen also said there was talk of Evan McMullin, a former GOP congressional staffer and supporter of abortion access running as an independent Senate candidate in Utah against Republican incumbent Mike Lee.

Utah Democrats have endorsed McMullin instead of putting up their own candidate.

In his conversations with others in his party, Haugen said, "They brought up the [Supreme Court's] Dobbs decision, because I'm pro-life and what's happened across the vote in Kansas recently." Raising that issue surprised him, he said.

In July, the policy committee of the North Dakota Democratic-Nonpartisan League Party voted down a resolution calling for the party to pull support from Haugen's candidacy over his anti-abortion stance.

"It failed and failed miserably. So I thought this was over," Haugen said.

Hart, though, said the party kept hearing about abortion from residents.

In traveling as the party chair over the past few months, Hart told ABC News, many constituents brought up Haugen's support of the Supreme Court overturning Roe and North Dakota's resulting "trigger" law, which would ban nearly all abortions in the state. (It's currently being challenged in court.)

"I've been hearing a lot of questions about Mark's viewpoint and really about the state party being a part of that," Hart acknowledged.

Can Mund change the race?

In deeply conservative North Dakota, where the GOP has held the at-large House seat since 2011, Mund told ABC she sees a certain legislative data point as an inroad for her potential victory: on the ballot in 2014 was a constitutional amendment on personhood, defining it as at the time of conception.

That proposal was defeated by 64% of voters.

"I think there's the silent majority that just didn't feel empowered, it didn't feel like we'll be represented," Mund said. "It's still an uphill battle. But it's not an impossible battle. And especially after Kansas, after Alaska, don't be surprised if there's a big 'Roe-vember.'"

"At this point in time, there has to be someone on the ballot who who identifies with a woman's right to choose," Mund said. "And especially after Dobbs, it just felt like there was really no hope, when you have both the Democratic candidate and the GOP candidate as pro-life."

PHOTO: Rep. Kelly Armstrong speaks during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., Aug. 24, 2020. (Tom Williams/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
PHOTO: Rep. Kelly Armstrong speaks during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., Aug. 24, 2020. (Tom Williams/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Mund said she remembers where she was when the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization decision came out that reversed Roe after some five decades.

The Harvard Law School graduate -- who met the 1,000-signature threshold for listing on the ballot on Sept. 8, two days after she turned in more than 2,600 signatures to the North Dakota secretary of state -- was preparing for the bar exam at home in Bismarck.

"I think like a lot of us that were studying thought … now what happens on the bar exam when the Supreme Court has overturned precedent and everything we've studied for?" she said.

Mund took the North Dakota bar in July but said she had begun thinking about her bid for the House seat months earlier. Her aspirations of running for office began as she took a class in law school on campaigns and elections -- but she never thought she'd jump in this cycle.

When the draft opinion of Dobbs was leaked in May, however, she started moving forward on her campaign.

Mund said she has identified as a Republican for most of her life. After attending Brown University as an undergraduate, she interned for GOP Sen. John Hoeven in 2016 -- she said the longtime North Dakota Republican is still one of her political heroes. (Hoeven did not respond to a request for comment.)

Mund said she was mulling a staff job with Hoeven before she jumped into the Miss America pageant -- another dream. She attended the 2018 State of the Union address as Hoeven's guest, following her Miss America victory.

"Coming from a state like North Dakota that had never won, people were constantly underestimating me. And here we are in 2022 and they're still underestimating me," Mund said.

If elected, she'd be North Dakota's first woman in the House.

When she entered the race, Mund said she'd initially thought she would caucus with Republicans. She now says that while she could still vote with the GOP, she isn't sure she would be embraced by the party -- referring to a state Republican rule which bars candidates who have run as independents from seeking the party's endorsement for six years.

Mund also stressed that her abortion politics set her apart from Republicans.

"I worked for a Republican senator, I grew up with a lot of conservative values," she said. "But being pro-choice, I knew that there was no way that the party would ever endorse me."

She said she admires outgoing Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney's courage to challenge former President Donald Trump because "he's not above the law."

Mund, who is her own campaign manager, lacks robust fundraising mechanisms. "It would have been so much easier to go with a party. But I did not want a party to tell me what's best for our people," she said.

Heitkamp, the former senator, applauded her ambition despite their other differences. "Cara Mund is taking on the 'Good Old Boys' political establishment in North Dakota," Heitkamp said in her statement. "She has proven herself to be someone who will call out the unfairness of institutions, whether it is in the political system or the Miss America world. She is very smart and very consistent in her beliefs."

A pro-abortion access Miss America roils North Dakota House race with independent bid originally appeared on abcnews.go.com