JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — What The Hell Just Happened?


Nobody — not me, not you, not Doug Burgum — could have predicted that outcome. Some predicted a Burgum win. Not me, although I had this nagging feeling every time I saw Ed Schafer on TV that maybe, just maybe, it could happen. But too many times I have predicted an election outcome because I wanted that outcome, not because I really believed it could happen.

So I cast my vote, and finally, I voted for a winning candidate in a governor’s race. And I had to vote for a Republican to make that happen. Although that is not new. The last two times I voted for a winning candidate in a governor’s race were in 1996 and 1992. Both for a Republican — Ed Schafer.

Name change

I heard a rumor Doug was at the Cass County Courthouse this morning, filing papers to change his first name from “Conservative” back to “Doug.” I’m guessing you won’t hear that tag any more this year.

Whither the Democrats?

More than 113,000 voters cast ballots in the Republican governor’s race Tuesday, a new record, as far as I can tell. When Kevin Cramer beat Brian Kalk for Congress in the 2012 primary, a shade over 100,000 ballots were cast.  Generally, somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 Republicans vote in primary elections in North Dakota.

Fewer than 18,000 voters cast ballots in the Democratic-NPL column Tuesday, a difference between Republicans and Democrats of almost 100,000. Wow. I’ve been around for a lot of elections, and I’ve never seen a disparity like that.

In the last three presidential year primaries, Democrats got 57,000 votes in 2012, 43,000 in 2008 and 40,000 in 2004. This year, it was less than 20,000. Not that primary election numbers translate into much in the fall. In 2006, Democrats actually got more votes than Republicans in the primary, even without any contested races on the ballot, but didn’t pick up a single statewide office in the fall, their only win being the re-election of Roger Johnson as Agriculture commissioner.

So, what happened to all the Democrats this year? Go back and read the first paragraph of this section.


Democrats did not win the election for Doug Burgum. They just made the margin bigger. Burgum worked harder and spent more money. Stenehjem may have been a little lackadaisical. He may also have some medical issues he’s not talking about. He came off as old and lethargic on TV, as opposed to the natural Energizer Bunny personality of Burgum.

A good closer wins games

And then, like any good baseball team, Team Burgum brought in a powerful closer, the best closer in North Dakota, Ed Schafer, the only public figure who actually has even more energy than Doug Burgum.

Bottom line is this: Burgum won by 20 percent. I think the combination of Democrats voting in the Republican column and Schafer’s endorsement on TV accounted for half of that difference. Take away those two things, taking away 10 percent from Burgum and giving it to Stenehjem, and you have a dead heat.


Still, Stenehjem should not have even been in a dead heat. My wife hit upon the real reason for Burgum’s win — he picked up on the Donald Trump theme of throwing out the establishment. And it worked. Like it or not, there’s a mood out there, even in the Democratic Party. Bernie Sanders used it as well, although Sanders did not have an Ed Schafer to close his campaign. So the guy who’s never been a politician turned out to be the best politician.

Lawyers should stick to lawyering

And so, like so the two attorneys general who preceded him, Wayne Stenehjem has failed in his attempt to make the walk across the Great Hall to the governor’s office. Nick Spaeth tried it in 1992. Heidi Heitkamp in 2000. I wrote here last fall that North Dakotans just don’t like lawyers as their governors, and if anyone wants to know why a whole bunch of Democrats voted in the Republican column for Doug Burgum, read that blog — there are indeed a lot of people upset with some of the things he’s done as attorney general. They weren’t really voting for Doug Burgum — they were voting against Wayne Stenehjem.

Harms’ revenge

Credit also Robert Harms. From what I could tell, Harms was Burgum’s key political adviser. He brought a lot of savvy to the race, having served as Schafer’s consigliere for eight years, and the two of them, along with Kevin Cramer, built a political machine much like the Democrats had for most of 30 years before they came along. Harms got unceremoniously bounced from his job as state Republican Party chairman last year. This was sweet revenge.


What’s clear right now is there is chaos in the North Dakota Republican Party. A lot of lines were crossed in this campaign that haven’t been crossed before. Burgum was openly critical of the entire party leadership and its elected officials, both the legislative and executive branches. It was what he had to do to win. The party retaliated, even to the point of running ads on the radio paid for by the party itself, featuring the party chairman, Kelly Armstrong. That’s probably unprecedented — the Party running ads against one of its own, especially one who has given tens of thousands of dollars to that party. There’s gonna be some hard healing to do.

Another WTF?

One of the things that made me giggle a bit is the fact that all those Republican voters decided to support keeping North Dakota’s anti-corporation farm laws intact. What’s up with that?

Wayne’s Future

I pointed out the other day that now that Burgum is the nominee for governor, Stenehjem is still attorney general, and they’ll have to serve together. Burgum said some pretty mean stuff about Stenehjem — as mean as I’ve seen in a North Dakota campaign. And now, they have to work together. Don’t be surprised if Stenehjem finds himself a friendly Republican law firm and puts an end to his 40-year career in government, rather than have to work with the man who discredited him to the tune of a couple million dollars of negative television.

Final advice

We never will know how much Burgum’s win cost him, but even $2 million or $3 million is still pocket change for him. What we learned this week is that when Doug Burgum sets out to do something, get out of his way. He’s going to do it. He has the smarts, the skills, the drive and energy and the money to get stuff done.  Never bet against Doug Burgum. And never, ever, bet against Ed Schafer. I’m kind of eager to see what role Ed Schafer plays from here on out, and what the two of them get done.

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