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North Dakota's new CEO: Burgum wins governor's race with nearly 77 percent of votes

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Doug Burgum addresses the crowd after winning the office of governor Tuesday night, Nov. 8, 2016, at the Sanctuary Events Center in Fargo. Brent Sanford, at right in the photo, is the new Lt. Governor Dave Wallis / The Forum2 / 10
North Dakota Governor-elect Doug Burgum speaks to the audience Tuesday, Nov.8, 2016, at the Sanctuary Events Center in downtown Fargo.David Samson / The Forum3 / 10
Candace and Ken Tanner look at election results with Robert and Marie Tanner at a gathering of Republican supporters Tuesday night, Nov. 8, 2016, at the Sanctuary Events Center in Fargo. Dave Wallis / The Forum 4 / 10
Kathryn Helgaas joins Doug Burgum for photographs on the stage after making his acceptance speech Tuesday night, Nov. 8, 2016, at the Sanctuary Events Center in Fargo. Dave Wallis / Forum News Service5 / 10
Kathryn Helgaas joins Doug Burgum at the podium as he says thank you to a variety of people and groups Tuesday night, Nov. 8, 2016, at the Sanctuary Events Center in Fargo. To the left are Doug’s sons Tom and Joe. At right is Lt. Governor Brent Sanford. Dave Wallis / Forum News Service6 / 10
Republican supporters watch election returns Tuesday, Nov.8, 2016, at the Sanctuary Events Center in downtown Fargo.David Samson / The Forum7 / 10
Kathryn Helgaas Nov. 8, 2016, at Doug Burgum’s acceptance speech. Dave Wallis / Forum News Service8 / 10
Newly elected North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, Kathryn Helgaas, pose for photos with former governor Ed and Nancy Schafer Tuesday night, Nov. 8, 2016, at the Sanctuary Events Center in Fargo. Dave Wallis / Forum News Service9 / 10
Newly elected North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum and Kathryn Helgaas smile Tuesday night, Nov. 8, 2016, at the Sanctuary Events Center in Fargo. Dave Wallis / The Forum10 / 10

FARGO – Fargo tech mogul, real estate developer and millionaire philanthropist Doug Burgum capped his unconventional first run for political office with a convincing win Tuesday to add a new title to his resume: 33rd governor of North Dakota.

The 60-year-old Republican cruised to victory in the three-way race Nov. 8, extending the GOP’s 24-year grip on the governor’s office as voters elected a new face to steer the state through challenging economic times when Gov. Jack Dalrymple leaves office in December after six years.

When the polls closed at 8 p.m., CNN and other media outlets immediately projected Burgum as the winner.

In complete but unofficial results, the former Microsoft executive won the race with nearly 77 percent of the vote, compared with 19 percent for Democratic state Rep. Marvin Nelson of Rolla and 4 percent for Libertarian candidate Marty Riske of Fargo.

Surrounded by family and friends in a former church his Kilbourne Group firm bought and redeveloped into the Sanctuary Events Center in Fargo, Burgum thanked the crowd of more than 300, said he looked forward to a smooth transition with Dalrymple and called for an end to the type of polarizing politics that plagued the national election.

“It’s imperative as a state and as a nation we come together and look forward,” the Arthur native said.

Nelson and Riske were considered longshots against Burgum, who trounced the GOP’s endorsed candidate, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, by 20-plus percentage points in the June primary to win the Republican nomination. North Dakotans haven’t elected a Democrat as governor since 1988.

Burgum, who grew Great Plains Software as CEO and led the company through its sale to Microsoft for $1.1 billion in 2001, said when he running mate Brent Sanford take office Dec. 15, “Our first priority will be to balance the budget without raising taxes” – a challenge, he acknowledged, given low oil and farm commodity prices that contributed to more than $1 billion in revenue shortfalls this biennium.

Nelson, 58, a crop consultant in his second four-year House term, acknowledged he faced an uphill battle when he entered the race in mid-March, two weeks before his party’s state convention. His campaign raised roughly $100,000, compared with $1.6 million raised by Burgum, who also spent a chunk of his own money during the primary.

After the race was called, Nelson said by phone that Burgum is “an intelligent man” with business experience, but added, “He changed so much, even as the election went along.”

“I literally don’t have a clue what he’s going to do as governor,” he said.

Burgum said he called Nelson and Riske before his speech, and he congratulated them for running on important issues.

“They both stepped up when others would not,” he said.

In his 18-minute speech, Burgum touched on familiar themes of his campaign: diversifying North Dakota’s economy, reinventing government, education and health care and developing vibrant downtowns and main streets that attract workforce and talent.

He acknowledged that with limited name recognition and an early poll showing him way behind Stenehjem, it wasn’t a risk-free proposition when he asked Sanford, who is Watford City’s mayor and owns a car dealership there, to be his lieutenant governor.

“This was a risky proposition,” Burgum said.

A longtime GOP donor, Burgum entered the race in January and finished third at the Republican convention in April. He bounced back in the primary, painting Stenehjem as a career politician and himself as the political outsider and business leader best suited to rein in government spending and help the state’s struggling economy rebound.

His campaign ads criticizing “runaway spending” and the “good ol’ boys network” rubbed many lawmakers the wrong way in the GOP-controlled Legislature, and Burgum has since worked to smooth things over. He contributed more than $118,000 to the state party last week, and he said Tuesday that he and Sanford “look forward to working with all the legislators” to balance the budget.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.

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