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Stenehjem wins GOP nomination for hotly contested ND governor’s race; Burgum to continue to primary

FARGO - Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem needed two ballots Saturday, April 2, to win the Republican endorsement for North Dakota governor in a hotly contested, three-way race.

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North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem accepts for the NDGOP endorsement for governor during the during the NDGOP convention Saturday, April 2, 2016 in Fargo. (Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service)
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FARGO - Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem needed two ballots Saturday, April 2, to win the Republican endorsement for North Dakota governor in a hotly contested, three-way race.

He overcame a strong contest from Rick Becker, a state representative from Bismarck, who also gathered strength in the second ballot but fell short, and Doug Burgum, a Fargo entrepreneur whose support faded.

“We’ve had a robust and spirited campaign,” but now Republicans should unite, Stenehjem said in accepting the endorsement at Scheels Arena. But Burgum will oppose Stenehjem in the June primary, assuring that the nomination battle will continue.

“It doesn’t give us pause at all,” Burgum said of his third-place finish. When he announced his candidacy in January, Burgum said he expected to do poorly at the convention against Stenehjem, who has been winning elections for four decades.

“He’s had a chance to shake just about every hand in the state,” Burgum said of Stenehjem.

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In the first ballot, with 1,603 delegates casting ballots, Stenehjem captured 47 percent, followed by Becker with 36 percent and Burgum with 15 percent. To win, a candidate needed 50 percent.

Stenehjem’s strength rose in the second ballot. He came in with 51.5 percent, followed by Becker with 38 percent and Burgum with just under 10 percent.

Widely regarded as a commanding frontrunner, Stenehjem said he was not surprised it took two ballots to win in a three-way contest.

“Things happen at conventions,” he said, snacking on trail mix after the voting. To prepare for the primary, Stenehjem said he will have to raise money for a television campaign to compete against Burgum, who reports indicate spent more than $600,000 on his television advertising campaign before the convention.

“It means we have to work hard,” Stenehjem said. Republicans have held the governor’s office since Ed Schafer won in 1992, and the nomination fight could essentially decide who will replace Gov. Jack Dalrymple.

In his address to the convention, Stenehjem rejected talk of “gloom and doom” about North Dakota’s economy, and portrayed himself as a seasoned leader who would govern the state with a steady hand.

“There has never been a better time to live in the state of North Dakota than right here, right now,” Stenehjem said. While conceding economic challenges facing the state, Stenehjem pointed to healthy reserve funds and the lowest jobless rate in the nation as evidence the state is poised for brighter days ahead.          

As governor, he pledged to veto any tax increases passed by a “tight-fisted legislature” and vowed not to raise state taxes.

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The attorney general since 2000, Stenehjem was first elected to the North Dakota Legislature in 1976, representing a district in Grand Forks near the University of North Dakota.

Becker positioned himself as the most conservative candidate in the governor’s race, touting his ranking as the most conservative member of the Legislature, where he serves in the House representing a district in Bismarck. He works as a plastic surgeon and real estate developer.

In his convention speech, Becker said he recognized the need to cut the budget deeply long before that reality was acknowledged by leaders, and has been calling throughout his two terms in the House to limit the size and role of government.

From the start, Burgum ran an outsider’s campaign, billing himself as a conservative business leader with the ability to transform the state’s economy, now struggling with low oil and crop prices, and streamline state government.

In addressing delegates, Burgum emphasized his entrepreneurial background and his leading role helping to transform a humble startup, Great Plains Software, into a division of Microsoft that has enabled many of North Dakota’s sons and daughters to pursue a technology career without leaving their state.

His speech was accompanied by slides of daunting economic and budgetary trends, including a steep drop in personal income growth and the loss of 26,000 jobs, and rising jobless claims. Burgum agreed with Becker that state government has mushroomed unsustainably.

“The Republican party was not responsible for the high oil prices. The Republican party is not responsible for the low prices,” Burgum said. “But we are responsible for the decisions we made.”

The state’s bountiful reserves, he said, are dwindling. “We need an innovator, not a regulator,” Burgum said.

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