Dawson Holle’s drink of choice at his election party was “just water.”
If he had selected from the range of beers on tap at Mandan’s Seven Seas Bar and Grill, Holle would have been breaking the law. He’s just 18.
The dairy farmer who graduated high school earlier this year will become the youngest North Dakota legislator on record when he’s sworn in to the state House of Representatives next month.
(Legislative staff don’t have official data on lawmakers’ ages, though they believe Holle is the youngest.)
To claim that title, Holle had to beat a well-established incumbent in the Republican primary and a former Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairman in the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 8.
Holle and Christensen said young candidates consider the long-term implications of political and economic decisions that will impact their generation.
Young people “have everything to lose,” while older generations may not have to live with the consequences of adopting poor policies and taking on financial burdens, Christensen said.
Christensen hopes the recent victories for young office-seekers will spur more political involvement from the oft-overlooked age group.
“The bottom line is this should serve notice to anybody who thinks that they can’t make a difference because they’re young,” Christensen said.
But University of North Dakota political science professor Mark Jendrysik said ascending to elected office at such a young age is an impressive achievement for Holle and a benefit to the state.
“Given how geriatric our Legislature is, I think it’s good there will be a younger voice in there,” Jendrysik said.
Holle’s triumph sets him apart in the history books, but he won’t be the only Generation Z lawmaker in Bismarck.
A conservative youth movement is underway in the North Dakota House of Representatives. Next session, five Republican legislators under 25 will serve in the lower chamber, including Rogers Rep. Cole Christensen, who won reelection Tuesday.
Christensen, who offered advice to Holle throughout his campaign, said voters are increasingly recognizing that young people have a lot to offer in the realm of public service.
“People realize that the next generation is the future, so they’re willing to give the young blood a shot,” Christensen said. “I think the sentiment that you have to be retired or established in your work to represent people, that kind of mindset is fading out.”
A teenager’s ‘workhorse’ campaign
When most seniors at Mandan High School had their minds on prom and graduation last spring, Holle was gathering support for his underdog legislative campaign.
Holle said the spark for his House run came from an April conversation with his grandfather about the dwindling number of dairy farms in North Dakota.
“I was scared because I want dairy to be preserved and thrive in North Dakota,” Holle said. “I was like, ‘I want to do something because I don’t want to look down the road in 20 or 30 years and realize I could have done something.’”
But getting elected from a district with two incumbent House members — Republican Reps. Karen Rohr and Jim Schmidt — is no cakewalk.
Holle had to gather about 200 signatures just to make the June primary ballot. Christensen recommended he knock on doors around the expansive district and meet the people he hoped to represent.
The young candidate did just that, delivering doorstep pitches in every town in District 31.
“I feel like I have a compelling message to the people in my district, and when I got door-knocking with people, they really felt that I have their best interest in mind,” Holle said. “I feel like I got that momentum.”
Outside of lifting up dairy producers and agriculture at-large, Holle said his core issues are protecting gun rights, supporting military veterans, upholding the state’s energy industry and promoting Native American tribal interests. The Standing Rock Sioux Reservation lies within Holle’s district.
His political inspirations are former President Donald Trump, U.S. Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer, both R-N.D., and members of his family who have advocated for North Dakota’s dairy industry.
“I want to listen to people, and I do have a lot to learn,” said Holle, who will turn 19 later this month.
When the primary came around, Holle’s vote total surpassed both Rohr and Schmidt. He and Rohr moved on to the general election, where they both defeated former Standing Rock Tribal Chairman Mike Faith.
Christensen said Holle’s “workhorse” attitude and willingness to listen fueled his unlikely success at the ballot box.
Jendrysik noted that young candidates like Holle may be more likely to meet the demands of campaigning for office.
“Politics in the end, especially here, is a face-to-face, get-to-know-people, knock-on-doors, go-to-the-church-picnic, choke-down-the-lutefisk business,” Jendrysik said. “Younger people do have an advantage in stamina.”
Young candidates may lack the professional credentials of typical politicians, but they provide a valuable perspective in an older state like North Dakota that has trouble retaining members of younger generations, Jendrysik noted.