Burgum's heavy involvement in GOP primary is without obvious parallel in North Dakota politics, observers say
FARGO — North Dakota’s governor aims to become Boss Burgum, head of an influential political machine. Or he’s settling grudges. Or he’s out to remold the Republican Party by supporting more moderate candidates.
The motivation depends on who’s talking — and lots of tongues are wagging after disclosures that Republican Gov. Doug Burgum, a tech mogul-turned-politician, has poured $1.85 million of his own money into Dakota Leadership PAC, which is run by two of his former aides.
The group has aired television spots and sent out campaign flyers against Rep. Jeff Delzer, R-Underwood, in the Tuesday, June 9, Republican primary in support of two GOP rivals, and is backing one candidate in the GOP nominating race for treasurer, a sleepy office that normally attracts little attention.
Besides the eye-popping war chest the group has raised, possibly unprecedented in North Dakota primary politics, the intra-party squabble is highly unusual in a state that is thoroughly run by Republicans, who occupy every statewide office and have super-majority control of the Legislature.
Burgum’s heavy-handed approach and willingness to clash with members of his own party leave observers grasping for political parallels.
“We haven’t had anybody who was in a position to throw that kind of cash around and was willing,” said Dustin Gawrylow, who heads the North Dakota Watchdog Network.
In a commentary on the NDxPlains blog, Gawrylow drew comparisons between Burgum’s willingness to spend his money to nominate candidates he supports to the clout wielded by Alexander “Boss” McKenzie, a former Burleigh County sheriff who built a political machine and rose to become a kingmaker in North Dakota Republican politics.
“In my view, he’s trying to send a message to any of the arch-conservatives,” including the Libertarian-leaning Bastiat Caucus with whom Burgum has clashed, Gawrylow said. “He views them as an obstacle to his own political agenda.”
The differences are not necessarily philosophical, he said, adding, “On a lot of issues, they’re not that far apart.”
Gawrylow concedes his analogy between Burgum and McKenzie is imperfect. For one thing, McKenzie used other people’s money and reigned during North Dakota’s territorial and early statehood eras, when political bosses ran powerful political machines.
Personality conflicts figure into Burgum’s motivations, he said.
“You have a lot of big egos up there,” Gawrylow said, referring to the Capitol.
Delzer and Burgum crossed swords in 2018, when Delzer, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, announced they would ignore Burgum’s budget proposal.
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The action wasn’t unprecedented; legislative leaders had done much the same in 2013 when they questioned then-Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s claims of reducing certain general fund spending.
Dalrymple, a former legislator, didn’t push back, Gawrylow said.
Burgum’s effort to make the North Dakota GOP more to his liking is akin to a corporate hostile takeover, he said. “You guys wanted a businessman, and hostile takeovers are part of the business world. That’s what this is, a hostile takeover of the Legislature."
Burgum has defended the PAC’s involvement in the GOP primary, saying “competition is a good thing” and that he is trying to “level the playing field for candidates who lack the advantage of incumbency.”
A spokesman for Burgum said Monday, June 8, that he supports like-minded Republicans, and has supported almost three dozen GOP candidates this year for legislative and statewide office.
“Gov. Burgum has long supported conservative Repubican candidates who share his vision to strengthen the economy, treat taxpayers like customers and continue moving North Dakota forward,” said Mike Schrimpf, a spokesman for Burgum, who this year is seeking a second term. “He continues to do so as governor.”
Lloyd Omdahl, a former Democratic lieutenant governor and retired political science professor at the University of North Dakota, said the GOP nomination jousting is reminiscent of the Nonpartisan League’s routine support of its slate of Republican candidates before the progressive movement aligned with the Democrats in 1956.
The North Dakota Republican Party today is so large and dominant that factional feuds are inevitable, Omdahl said.
“It happens in a one-party state,” he said. “These kinds of conflicts are going to continue to erupt. They’ll continue, and they’ll probably get worse.”
Jim Fuglie, a former state tourism director and former executive director of the Democratic-NPL who now is a left-leaning blogger, said the schism in the North Dakota GOP reminds him of a rift that opened among the Democrats in 1992, when two rivals vied for the gubernatorial nomination.
That contest between then-Attorney General Nick Spaeth and state Sen. Bill Heigaard, the endorsed candidate, caused deep divisions among Democrats when Spaeth challenged Heigaard in the primary and won.
The divided Democrats lost to Republican Ed Schafer, and ever since the Democrats’ political fortunes in North Dakota have slid and the GOP has become a powerhouse, Fuglie said.
Division among Republicans, which Fuglie said appears to be serious, ultimately could weaken the party, he said.
Rep. Bob Martinson, R-Bismarck, said the divisions between the party, which have come into public view with scrutiny of the Dakota Leadership PAC’s involvement in primary races, are longstanding.
“We’ve always had a bit of a conflict between very conservative and more moderate Republicans,” he said. But he cannot recall a previous governor getting openly involved in legislative races.
“I don’t think it’s ever happened,” Martinson said.
He discounts the division among Democrats for their loss in the 1992 gubernatorial race. He said Schafer, who went on to help rebuild the state GOP, ran an “absolutely perfect campaign.”
Martinson and Fuglie agree on one point, however. As Martinson put it: “It’s going to be very difficult for the governor to lobby for issues he thinks are important in the Legislature next session. Jeff (Delzer) has a lot of friends in the House.”
For Burgum, he said, “It’s a lose-lose.”
Rob Port, a conservative Forum Communications blogger, believes Burgum, having run against the “old boy’s network” to win office, has already concluded that he will not have the support of certain Republicans.
As long as Burgum puts forward proposals that are broadly popular, he will get Republican support, Port said.
Political differences, even within a party, are inevitable, he said. Port rejects suggestions that Burgum is out to build a political machine and noted most of the candidates the governor supports are endorsed by the party.
“As acrimonious as it is at times, this is the game, this is the process,” Port said.
One thing makes Burgum’s efforts to mold the party to his liking unique, however.
“He can do it at a different level,” Port said. Money is part of politics and fundamental to political speech.
But, Port said, “I think it should be transparent.”