BISMARCK – Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley, widely considered a top GOP contender for governor before admitting to an extramarital affair earlier this month, announced Monday he will not run in 2016, which one political observer said gives Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem an inside track to the office.
“While Kathleen and I have been heartened by the many expressions and promises of support for a 2016 campaign for governor, we have concluded that the onset of a campaign is not consistent with the current needs of our family. Those personal considerations are foremost in our lives, and we have made this decision together,” Wrigley said in an emailed statement from personal friend Pat Finken.
“My professional attention will stay on the work to be done over the remaining 14 months of my term as lieutenant governor of North Dakota,” Wrigley continued.
Finken, who is president of frequent GOP campaign adviser Odney Advertising but said he was acting on Wrigley’s behalf as a personal friend, said Wrigley would not be available for interviews Monday.
Gov. Jack Dalrymple was in Washington, D.C., for meetings Monday and could not be reached for comment, spokesman Jeff Zent said. Dalrymple announced in August he would not seek re-election to a second four-year term.
Wrigley admitted in Sept. 1 interviews to having an extramarital affair, though he hasn’t disclosed when it happened. He has said he had no professional connections to the woman and she was not a state employee or public official. He told Forum News Service last week that he’d had no other affairs.
Wrigley’s exit as a potential contender leaves five Republicans who have publicly expressed interest in the gubernatorial race.
Stenehjem said last week he is “seriously considering a run,” and that his wife is on board. State Treasurer Kelly Schmidt also has said she is mulling a run.
State Rep. Rick Becker of Bismarck said last week he will formally announce his candidacy Oct. 19, and state Sen. Tom Campbell of Grafton recently said he has formed an exploratory committee.
Fargo entrepreneur Doug Burgum also has expressed interest and hasn’t ruled out a run as an independent.
Wrigley said in his statement that he and his wife “are humbled by the loving spirit of the innumerable kindnesses extended by so many people.
“To all of those who will be running for governor and other offices in 2016, our family wishes you a safe, positive and spirited journey,” he said.
State Republican Party Chairman Kelly Armstrong said it was a personal decision for Wrigley, as with any candidate considering a run for political office.
“Drew’s been great for the party for all his years of service. He’ll continue to be great for the party. If he seems happy and comfortable with his decision, then we’re happy and comfortable for him,” he said.
Armstrong, a state senator from Dickinson who considers Wrigley a close personal friend, predicted that Wrigley will remain involved in the party.
“And how that is, is up to him, and he’ll always have a place in the GOP,” he said.
Robert Haider, executive director of the Democratic-NPL Party, said Wrigley’s announcement Monday, as well as previous announcements by other Republicans about the race, “doesn’t impact us in any way” as the party continues to search for potential candidates for the race.
“We have been having many conversations, and we’re not ready at this point to talk about any names,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., has said she is not running for governor.
Mark Jendrysik, a political science professor at the University of North Dakota, said enthusiasm about a Wrigley run among his supporters likely suffered a blow with his affair admission.
“We have what’s been described here as a moralistic political culture. I think people expect certain things from their elected leaders, and I think a lot of his supporters feel let down,” he said.
Without Wrigley in the race, Stenehjem appears to be the front-runner for the GOP nomination, Jendrysik said. Stenehjem served as a state lawmaker for 24 years before being elected attorney general in 2000, and he has handily won re-election four times since then.
“If the attorney general decides to run, I think this certainly gives him an inside track to the governorship,” Jendrysik said.
Wrigley was North Dakota’s U.S. attorney from 2001 to 2009 and was appointed lieutenant governor in December 2010 when Dalrymple ascended to the governor’s office with the election of John Hoeven to the U.S. Senate.
Jendrysik said he won’t be surprised if the 49-year-old Wrigley runs for office after some time out of the spotlight.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if he makes a political comeback at some point down the road,” he said.