McFeely: Burgum pulls off an upset for the political ages

FARGO--Stand up if you saw this coming. OK, now sit down. Because no you didn't. Even you, Doug. Take a seat.

North Dakota governor candidate Doug Burgum makes his way through the crowd to address supporters after winning the Republican vote in the primary election Tuesday, June 14, 2016, at Ecce Gallery in downtown Fargo. Dave Wallis / The Forum

FARGO-Stand up if you saw this coming.

OK, now sit down. Because no you didn't.

Even you, Doug. Take a seat.

You might have picked Doug Burgum to squeeze past Wayne Stenehjem in the North Dakota Republican primary for governor, but you didn't see him stomping the attorney general like he was some little-known Democrat.



Burgum, the wealthy Fargo entrepreneur who was a big donor to the GOP insiders until he became a political outsider, will be the next governor of North Dakota after routing Stenehjem 59-39 Tuesday. Unless Democrat Marvin Nelson can find, oh, $7 million or $8 million lying in a ditch in Rolette County between now and Nov. 8, that is.
And even that might not help. Burgum might have spent nearly that to defeat Stenehjem, making it the most expensive political race in state history. Money can't buy you love, but it can get you the governor's office.

That's probably a bit unfair. Yes, the piles of cash Burgum spent for television ads, radio spots and mailer after mailer after mailer after slick mailer had an undeniable influence on this race. Burgum was down by 49 points in January, when the only statewide independent poll matching him and Stenehjem was conducted. Money can buy you recognition and close the gap.

But this goes deeper than that. Burgum routed Stenehjem across the board and in every which way. In the east and the west. In rural areas and larger cities. In the Oil Patch. Ranch country. It was a blowout of ridiculous proportions.

You could call it embarrassing proportions for the Republican establishment. Stenehjem was the hand-picked party successor to low-energy Gov. Jack Dalrymple and the longtime legislator and attorney general never got out of the starting blocks. His was a nearly invisible campaign. Boring. There was no juice, he never gave people a reason to get excited about a Stenehjem administration. Unless somebody considers the status quo exciting.

Burgum rode the anti-establishment wave from the beginning, waging an almost micro-targeted campaign pushed by his consultant out of the Washington, D.C., area. Burgum embraced Donald Trump, painted Stenehjem as a supporter of Obamacare, hammered Stenehjem on the current state of the North Dakota budget. It was a non-stop blizzard of polling hot-button issues and talking points. Burgum's campaign would push-poll residents one week and mail campaign flyers the next, pounding Stenehjem on issues like the raises he received as attorney general.
Burgum's campaign was a 2016 Corvette. Stenehjem's, run by a Bismarck advertising agency that's long been a power broker in state Republican politics, reacted like a 1971 AMC Hornet.

The candidates appeared the same way. Burgum was everywhere, Stenehjem lagged. Burgum is four years younger than Stenehjem, but it seemed like 40. The ground games were not comparable. Burgum's was youthful and fresh, Stenehjem's was old-school.

Burgum still has work ahead and it has nothing to do with beating Nelson, a good man who doesn't have a chance of winning in November. The Republican establishment, including some big-time businessmen and a ton of legislators, is angry with Burgum for upsetting the apple cart. How dare he have the audacity to challenge the powers that be? They'll have to get over it, but Burgum will need to mend fences.

And the question remains as to which Doug Burgum will take office. Will it be the Burgum Fargo has come to know over all these years, the cool techy guy who was fairly conservative when it came to finances and business while being socially moderate? Or will it be the hard-right, Trump-loving hardcore conservative who campaigned?


This part will be particularly interesting. Burgum had almost no statewide name recognition when he declared he was running in January. Many voters know him only through his advertisements and media interviews. Fargoans and Cass County residents feel they know the "real" Doug Burgum. To watch which one emerges as the governor will be fascinating.

Prior to Tuesday, we didn't need to give it much thought. There weren't many who saw a Burgum victory coming. There were even fewer who saw a 30-point rout coming.

You can say you did. But you didn't. Even you, Doug.

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