BISMARCK — An ordinary election night in North Dakota might yield celebrations at local restaurants, adrenaline-fueled speeches to supporters and cordial phone calls between winners and losers.
But these are no ordinary times.
North Dakota's primary elections on Tuesday, June 9 were conducted completely by mail due to concerns over the spread of COVID-19. The state's 53 counties tallied nearly 155,000 ballots already received from residents — however, another 41,000 ballots were sent but not returned by Tuesday afternoon.
All of the missing ballots could theoretically be counted as long as they were postmarked by Monday. While it's unlikely every resident who received a ballot actually mailed it in on time, the strange circumstances mean the outcomes of a few notable statewide and legislative races hang in the balance until county canvassing boards certify all election results on June 15.
"I'm never satisfied until the fat lady sings," Deputy Secretary of State Jim Silrum said Wednesday.
Dave Nehring and David Andahl, two Republican newcomers supported financially by Gov. Doug Burgum, appear to have prevailed against powerful House Appropriations Chairman Jeff Delzer in the legislative district just north of Bismarck. The "two Daves" each lead Delzer by more than 6% of the vote and would both advance to the November general election to face Democratic-NPL candidates Linda Babb and Kathrin Volochenko, unless Delzer gets an improbable 500-vote boost from the late ballots.
Delzer, who has served in the Legislature since the 1990s, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Burgum, a former tech executive, has contributed nearly $1.9 million of his personal fortune to a political committee that paid for negative mailings and multimedia advertising against Delzer and promotional media in support of Andahl and Nehring.
Several prominent Republicans, including House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, have said Burgum is trying to erode the separation of powers with his involvement in statewide and legislative races. Burgum said of his spending in the primary races that "competition is a good thing" and his financial backing is leveling the playing field for candidates like Andahl and Nehring who do not have the built-in advantage of incumbency.
The Burgum-funded committee also heavily invested in Thomas Beadle's campaign for state treasurer, promoting the Fargo lawmaker's candidacy while paying for negative advertising against his intra-party opponent, Rep. Dan Johnston, R-Kathryn. With Tuesday's unofficial results, Beadle has received 52% of the vote to Johnston’s 47%. The gap between the candidates is nearly 5,000 votes.
Burgum campaign spokesman Mike Schrimpf claimed victory for Andahl, Nehring and Beadle in a press release Wednesday, but Beadle is taking a more cautious approach in recognition of the late ballots that have yet to be counted.
With the way the results are trending, Beadle said he's confident about his chances but acknowledged the outcome won't be certain until next week. Johnston could not be reached for comment in time for publication.
Silrum said it's likely Beadle will come out on top since it would be hard to see Johnston getting a wide majority of the late votes in a race that has been relatively tight.
Other statewide races are not in doubt. Burgum and Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford handily defeated Republican challengers Michael Coachman and Joel Hylden. On the Democratic-NPL side, the Associated Press declared Zach Raknerud the winner over Roland Riemers for the party's nomination in the race for North Dakota's lone U.S. House seat.
State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler is certain to advance to the November election in a bid to keep her position. Her opponent will likely be Underwood Schools Superintendent Brandt Dick, who leads former businessman Charles Tuttle by 6% of the vote for second place, but only final results will cement the continuation of Dick's campaign.
The nearly 155,000 ballots counted so far in the primary mark the second highest turnout for a primary election in the state's history behind only the 175,303 votes tallied in 2012.