North Dakota's contest for agriculture commissioner once focused largely on which candidate was more of a farmer. But as the state's energy-driven prosperity grows, the job increasingly has become more about harvesting oil.
There's unprecedented interest — and record special interest campaign contributions— for Republican incumbent Doug Goehring and Democratic opponent Ryan Taylor in the Nov. 4 general election because the agriculture commissioner sits on the state Industrial Commission, which regulates North Dakota's booming oil industry.
What just a few years ago was known solely as an agricultural state, North Dakota now boasts crude oil as its top crop, a commodity that is fueling the state's treasury by billions of dollars annually. The role of the state's agriculture commissioner has changed with the times.
"It has morphed a bit, and a lot more attention is being paid to that role of the Industrial Commission," said Goehring, who is seeking his second four-year term on the all-GOP panel that also includes Gov. Jack Dalrymple and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.
The commissioner also heads North Dakota's Department of Agriculture, which is tasked with regulating everything from auction barns to agricultural chemicals.
The agency has 77 employees and a two-year budget of $25.3 million. Goehring is paid $102,408 annually.
Goehring, 49, runs a farm with his son near Menoken, east of Bismarck. Goehring said he has raised almost all of the crops that are grown in the state and also run a cattle operation.
Taylor, 44, a former state senator who lost a bid for governor two years ago, operates a cattle ranch with his wife near Towner in north-central North Dakota.
Both men wear cowboy boots with their business suits and have similar positions on a number of issues. They both want to protect farmers and ranchers from overreaching federal regulations and they both oppose a measure that would direct 5 percent of the state's oil extraction tax revenue to conservation. Both advocate building oil pipelines to displace oil trains that are blamed for hampering the movement of grain to market.
The similarities end with oil.
Both men believe oil and agriculture can prosper together, though Goehring has been critical of some additional oil regulations. Taylor believes the state has not done a good job ensuring that agriculture and oil development can coexist, and more needs to be done to protect the environment.
Goehring has raised almost $339,000 in campaign funds compared to about $285,000 for Taylor, their disclosure reports show. Both have benefited from lock-step party donations, but only Goehring has gotten funding from the oil industry.
A major North Dakota farm group isn't backing either candidate.
Goehring, who is a former vice president of the North Dakota Farm Bureau, lost the support of the group that backed another Republican candidate during the primary campaign. The group said a difference in policy issues between the commissioner and the bureau led to its nonsupport.
Republicans hold every statewide office in North Dakota except for U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. Tayor believes a seat on state Industrial Commission would lend a more critical voice to oil regulation.
"There has been a general pattern on the Industrial Commission of everyone thinking the same thing," Taylor said. "I think balance drives better policy and more questions are asked."
Goehring said party affiliation has nothing to do with doing the right thing for North Dakota and his opponent is "trying to drive a wedge" between energy and agriculture.
Taylor has advocated more than doubling the required distance between oil wells and housing, and he also wants to require more pipeline monitoring, ideas that already have been dismissed by North Dakota's GOP-led Legislature.
"There is nothing original in there," Goehring said of Taylor's so-called Landowner's Bill of Rights.
Goehring said his opponent's plan would actually "expand the impact to landowners" by spreading out oil wells, and the idea of enhanced pipeline monitoring "does not prevent leaks."