Port: Despite Burgum's money, primary races mostly played out as expected

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum. Forum file photo

MINOT, N.D. — It's the day after an election day, which means it's the time when losing candidates must scramble to find an excuse for why they lost that doesn't have anything to do with the fact that the voters just liked the other candidate better.

In the lead-up to last night's balloting, there was a lot of talk about the millions of personal wealth North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum spent on backing his preferred candidates. In a podcast interview yesterday , state Rep. Rick Becker, a Bismarck Republican and founder of the Bastiat Caucus, likened Burgum's involvement in these races to an attempt to buy the Legislature.

He called the move "crap."

Burgum had an excellent night last night. In the two most high-profile races, he won. His preferred candidates knocked off longtime House appropriator, and Burgum nemesis, Rep. Jeff Delzer.


In the state Treasurer race, Burgum went all-in backing Fargo state Rep. Thomas Beadle against Kathryn-based Rep. Dan Johnston. Johnston enjoyed the backing of outgoing incumbent Kelly Schmidt, U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, and even President Donald Trump himself, but still managed to lose to Beadle by about five percentage points (though ballots are still being counted).

Last week, national Republicans were touting Trump's perfect endorsement record. Thanks to Johnston, that record is no more:

It seems the only places Burgum's candidates lost were Mandan's District 34, where Doug Larsen defeated Al Anderson for the NDGOP's Senate nomination, and in District 28, where incumbent Jeff Magrum held off a challenge from Jim Grueneich.

Burgum and his team got involved in District 8, District 12, District 20, District 28, District 34, District 36 and the treasurer's race.

They were unsuccessful in District 34 and District 28.

That's a pretty good record.

Which brings us back to where I started. The post-election excuse-making.


There will be a lot of ballyhoo about Burgum's money, but I think that's a mistake.

While money is always a factor in politics, it isn't usually quite the factor some make it out to be.

If cash spent were a decisive factor, Heidi Heitkamp would have won re-election to the U.S. Senate in 2018. After all, she outspent Kevin Cramer by about $18 million , but she lost by almost 11 percentage points.

In the 2020 primary, we're left with a chicken-and-egg problem. Did Burgum's candidates win because he spent big on them? Or did Burgum just back the right horses?

I'd lean toward the latter. While we political commentators like to focus on things in politics that are easy to measure, like money, election outcomes are typically based on far more nuanced considerations. This gets more true the more local the race gets.

Except for Larsen, every NDGOP lawmaker who won the nomination last night in districts where Burgum's money was in play had the endorsement of their local party.

That mattered more than the marketing Burgum paid for, I think.

Burgum's critics, including Becker and his Bastiat Caucus, will disagree. They'll want to talk about Burgum's money. They'll talk about Boss Burgum, a comparison to the infamous Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall.


The truth is, those folks made the same mistake about North Dakota voters they almost always make.

They assumed the state's electorate is more ideologically conservative than it is.

What really happened is they mostly backed the wrong horses. People who, be it for reasons having to do with personality or policy, couldn't win over local voters.

Burgum mostly backed the right ones.

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Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .

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 Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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