North Dakota Primary: State Rejects Property Tax Repeal, Religious Freedom Proposal (UPDATE)

North Dakota voters rejected proposals to institute religious freedom law and repeal all property taxes during Tuesday's primary election.

The defeats are a blow to conservative leaders, who had hoped North Dakota would become the first state to repeal property taxes and the 28th to implement a religious freedom law. Both proposals attracted strong opposition from moderate and progressive groups statewide, with fears that the religious freedom proposal could legalize child abuse, domestic violence, ritual animal sacrifice and the marriage of 12-year-old girls.

With 62 percent of the returns counted, the secretary of state's office showed the religious freedom referendum -- Measure 3 -- losing 65 percent to 35 percent. Property tax repeal -- Measure 2 -- was being defeated 78 percent to 22 percent. The margins remained roughly the same through the counting.

The religious freedom referendum was pushed by the North Dakota Family Alliance and the state Catholic Conference, who said that the measure would protect religious groups from government mandates, including contraception insurance requirements. Opponents said the wording of the proposal could lead to people being able to say that child abuse, domestic violence, marriage to children and animal abuse were religious practices. Proponents dismissed those arguments and also said the measure would not cause Sharia law to be implemented.

Leaders from the North Dakota Constitution Party had pushed the property tax measure, saying that state income tax and oil revenue could fund local government operations while increasing economic development. The measure was opposed by a coalition of groups that included AARP, the state Chamber of Commerce and the North Dakota Education Association. Bismarck City Commissioner Josh Askvig, an opponent of the measure, told HuffPost last week that repealing property taxes would raise questions on what counted as essential local government services and put public safety at risk.

Voters adopted Measure 4, which repeals the Fighting Sioux nickname for the sports teams of the University of North Dakota. The measure, one of the most controversial issues in recent state history, passed 68 percent to 32 percent. The repeal of the Fighting Sioux nickname came after the NCAA required the university to quit using the nickname, deemed offensive to Native American tribes.

The university's alumni opposed the measure, which became hotly debated in the state legislature during the 2011 session and in special sessions. Another referendum to restore the nickname is likely in November.

In the party primaries, Rep. Rick Berg (R) easily captured the Republican nomination for the state's open U.S. Senate seat. Berg defeated businessman Duane Sand 67 percent to 33 percent to face Democratic former state attorney general Heidi Heitkamp in November in what is considered one of the top Senate races in the country. A poll released Friday shows Heitkamp leading by one percentage point.

In the Republican race for Berg's open House seat, Public Service Commissioner Kevin Cramer has a slight lead over Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk for the right to face former state Rep. Pam Gulleson in November.

Heitkamp issued a statement Tuesday night highlighting the differences between her and Berg. While Berg had not officially captured the nomination until Tuesday evening, Heitkamp's campaign had been focused on the one-term congressman for months.

"I congratulate Rep. Berg on his primary victory tonight," Heitkamp said. "In November, North Dakota has a clear choice. I will set party interests aside, put our country first and get to work creating jobs and balancing the budget, while Rick Berg has voted with his party leaders to give millionaires like himself a tax cut, raise Medicare premiums, and end the guarantee of Medicare for those who can least afford it."

UPDATE: 12:25 a.m. --

The Associated Press called the Republican congressional primary for state Public Service Commissioner Kevin Cramer around midnight. Cramer defeated Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk, the endorsed candidate of the state Republican Party, 53 percent to 46 percent, according to returns on the secretary of state's website. Cramer, a former state tourism director who has lost three previous congressional races, will face former state Rep. Pam Gulleson (D) in November.

The non-partisan race for state superintendent of public instruction has turned into a nail-biter, with three candidates battling it out for the two spots in the November election. Manden School Board President Kirsten Baesler (R) maintains first place in the open-seat race, with former state Sen. Tracy Potter (D) holding a narrow lead over former North Dakota Education Association President Max Laird (D) for second place.

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