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Port: There's a better way to do this, Gov. Burgum

Burgum is once again flooding North Dakota's legislative races with his money. He's not doing anything illegal, or even particularly unusual (outside of the scale of the spending), but the way he's doing it is creating rancor he could have avoided.

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North Dakota Rep. Jeff Magrum, R-Hazelton, stares down Gov. Doug Burgum as the Republican governor enters the House of Representatives chamber on Nov. 8, 2021.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
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MINOT, N.D. — Gov. Doug Burgum is pouring money into North Dakota's legislative races again. He spent well over $3 million last cycle, and he's close to a million in this cycle with the June primary vote less than a month away.

And you know what? There isn't a thing wrong with Burgum spending that money.

There are a few things wrong with the way he's going about things, though.

First, let's acknowledge what an unusual election cycle this is. There are a lot of contested primaries in the legislative races. Far more than usual. In a typical year we might see a half-dozen or so competitive legislative primaries. That's when the candidate endorsed by a political party's local district is challenged by another candidate in the June primary.

This year there are 24, including 21 among Republican candidates and 3 among Democrats.

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Why so many this year?

Part of it is that this is the first election after redistricting. The way the new district boundaries were drawn after the most recent census, some incumbent lawmakers got lumped in together. But perhaps a bigger driver of the intraparty competition is the divide in the North Dakota Republican Party between traditional conservatives and a new wave of Trumpy populists.

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I'm just not seeing a constituency of North Dakota voters that Mund could appeal to that's large enough to lead her to victory. But, again, that's assuming that she's running to win, and not as a way to keep her celebrity alive post-Miss America.

The party is fractured, and that's showing up in the legislative primaries.

And that's the context for Gov. Doug Burgum and his political spending. Which, again, I don't have a problem with, but the way he's doing it will do more harm than good I'm afraid.

First, there's the fact that, given the way Burgum's committee — the Dakota Leadership PAC — is constituted, he doesn't have to disclose the spending. So he's not.

He could choose to anyway, but he's not required to by law. Last year lawmakers, despite a lot of griping in their chambers about executive branch meddling in legislative branch elections, killed a bill that would have created a reporting requirement for committees like Burgum's, so I doubt the governor is feeling a lot of pressure to disclose.

And maybe that's not a big deal. What would we learn from a disclosure? That Burgum's money is being spent on a lot of advertising? We know this. We can see the mailers flooding mailboxes.

The bigger problem is that Burgum and his people aren't talking about what they're doing. Gov. Burgum consistently declines to comment on the donations. His people are just barely communicating with the public.

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Levi Bachmeier, Dakota Leadership PAC’s chairman, and Dawson Schefter, a spokesman for Burgum's campaign, emailed our reporter Jeremy Turley only the most superficial of statements about the committee and its spending.

"Bachmeier and Schefter did not immediately respond to a detailed list of questions from Forum News Service about Burgum's donations, including what political campaigns Burgum's funds will be put toward, if any," Turley reported.

That's such a terrible look.

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North Dakota Rep. Bill Tveit, R-Hazen, said he has recently received 18 politcal mailers in support of his Republican challengers, Mark Pierce and Anna Novak. The mailers were paid for by Dakota Leadership PAC, a secretive political committee funded entirely by Republican Gov. Doug Burgum.
Photo provided by Bill Tveit

If they believe what they're doing is right and proper, why not be open about it? Why not take questions? Why not make the affirmative case, to the press and the public, for what Gov. Burgum is trying to accomplish?

The way Burgum and his people are handling things, they look furtive.

Cynical.

Dishonorable, even.

I can't help but think back to Burgum's first campaign for governor when he flooded North Dakota's electorate with the same sort of scorched-earth tactics, slamming the Republicans in the legislature as the "good old boys club," etc., etc.

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It worked. He's the governor now. But at what cost? I think, in private moments, Burgum might admit that the approach, while effective, also made enemies where there needn't have been any.

Burgum has enormous financial resources he can marshal to influence state politics, and I don't begrudge him that.

My point is that there's a better way to do this stuff. One that's more open, and more honest, and less cynical.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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