JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Heavyweights, Lightweights and Republican Squabbles In 2020

Geez, Doug Burgum must be really pissed off at Jeff Delzer. Burgum is North Dakota’s governor. Delzer is a state representative from District 8, and a powerful one — chairman of the important North Dakota House of Representatives Appropriations Committee.

Some say Delzer is the most powerful of all state legislators. Also one of the biggest. Kind of pumpkin-shaped. A BIG pumpkin. Burgum’s built more like a skinny little street fighter. They’re about the same age. Burgum is a few years older, but he has way more hair. And a neck.

One would think that given the state of disarray in North Dakota’s Democratic-NPL Party these days that Delzer, having brought home the bacon for the folks in District 8 for more than 25 years, shouldn’t have to worry about his re-election chances this year. Well, it turns out it’s not the Democrats he has to worry about — it’s his own Republican Party that’s giving him a problem.

Because those ungrateful District 8 Republicans, at their nominating convention this winter, kicked him off their 2020 ticket. Instead, they endorsed a couple of newcomers, David Andahl and Dave Nehring.

Now that’s an unusual thing to happen, but it’s not a difficult thing to pull off. Party endorsements for the Legislature are made by those who show up at the district convention. Obviously, Nehring and Andahl went out and got all their friends to show up at the convention, catching an unsuspecting Delzer off guard. I’m guessing no one was more surprised walking out of the convention than Delzer. I mean, WTF?

I’ve seen it happen over the years that I was involved in politics. Way back in 1992, when Bud Sinner was stepping down as governor, Attorney General Nick Spaeth appeared to be the anointed one to succeed him. He even had Sinner’s tacit endorsement. They had come into office together in 1984, both upsetting incumbent Republicans, and were close confidants during their eight years across the hall from each other.

But State Sen. Bill Heigaard was the choice of young liberals in the party and feeling their oats, they went district to district and took over conventions and in a major upset, threw the party’s endorsement to Heigaard at the 1992 state convention. Spaeth, however, with wide approval and way more name recognition than the little-known state senator from Langdon, went to the primary election in June, defeated Heigaard and then got trounced in November by Ed Schafer, an election that brought the beginning of now nearly 30 years of Republican dominance in North Dakota politics.

That can happen when a party gets divided. North Dakota Republicans, who have quite a few internal squabbles going on right now, would do well to remember that. Democrats had a long run in state government, holding the governor’s office and most statewide offices for more than 30 years, well through the end of the century. The beginning of the end of that run came in that 1992 governor’s race.

More recently, now-State Sen. Erin Oban of Bismarck’s District 35 brought a slug of her friends to the district convention in 2014 and swiped the endorsement from former Sen. Tracy Potter, who had left his Senate seat four years earlier to run against John Hoeven for the U.S. Senate. Now, Potter could have run against Oban in the primary election, and probably won, but he believed in the system, so he decided not to challenge Oban, instead accepting the district’s endorsement for the House of Representatives, and losing in the fall election by just a couple of hundred votes. Oban won the Senate race against the hapless Margaret Sitte and has become an outstanding legislator, a party leader and maybe the state’s first female governor someday.

But back to matters at hand. Andahl and Nehring are District 8’s endorsed Republican candidates. They sought the endorsement as a team, and they’re campaigning as a team. Delzer is challenging them in the primary. He’d be a good bet to beat one of them, which could make for an uncomfortable situation going into the fall general election.

But Nehring and Andahl appear to have big timber on their side: Doug Burgum. Burgum’s darned popular with North Dakota Republicans. And while I haven’t seen an open endorsement of the two yet, here’s what I know.

A friend of mine shared with me a couple of campaign flyers that have been mailed to Republicans in District 8, promoting the candidacy of Nehring and Andahl. My friend said that he thinks there have been five separate mailings. Andahl has a picture of President Trump on at least one of his flyers. Nehring has Trump AND Burgum. Both have the word ENDORSED in big type. Somebody is spending a lot of money to get these two guys through the primary, which is just a month away now.

That somebody is likely Doug Burgum. The disclaimer on the flyers says, “Paid for by Dakota Leadership PAC, Cam Knutson, Secretary.” I had never heard of the Dakota Leadership PAC, and I don’t know Cam Knutson, but I recall he has ties to Burgum back at Burgum’s real estate and development  firm in Fargo.

A quick look at the PAC’s Bizapedia registration form shows its mailing address is Box 2945, Fargo, ND, 58108, and that its registered agent is Robbie Lauf. Lauf was a principal on Burgum’s 2016 campaign for governor and became Burgum’s senior policy adviser when he became governor. I think he’s left the governor’s staff. Online, he shows a Fargo address. He’s also a member of the Board of Trustees of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library, one of Burgum’s pet projects. It’s no secret that Delzer was a pretty vocal opponent of the governor’s $50 million proposal to help fund the library project, voting against it in the 2019 legislative session.

What I know is, Lauf stops by the post office to get his Dakota Leadership PAC mail at the same P.O. box as the Burgum for Governor Campaign gets theirs — Box  2945 in Fargo. That’s the mailing address listed for the campaign on the ND Secretary of State’s website anyway. (Just click on “Contest,” then “Governor,” then “Search.”)  It was also on the Burgum campaign’s website when I looked the other day, but it seems to be gone now.

I don’t know if Lauf is back on the campaign staff. Maybe one of my Republican friends will tell me. Levi Bachmeier, who also came from the 2016 Burgum campaign into the governor’s office, although he’s left there for a job in education in Fargo these days, was listed as the treasurer of the Dakota  Leadership PAC,.

So we’ve got a bunch of these young Republican political junkies (not that there’s anything wrong with that) with close ties to Doug Burgum spending a bunch of somebody’s money cranking out mailers to try to unseat the powerful House Appropriations Committee chairman, one of the senior legislators in their own party.


Go back to December 2018. After Burgum and his staff spent much of the year crafting a budget for North Dakota’s state government to present to the 2019 Legislature — as North Dakota’s executive branch officials do every even-numbered year — Delzer and Sen. Ray Holmberg, Delzer’s counterpart in the state Senate, told  Burgum to take a hike, saying they didn’t want his budget, they were going to write their own.

Generally, over the years, the governor has written a budget and presented it as series of bills for the Legislature to act on. No more. Literally the night before Burgum was going to give his traditional budget address to the Legislature in December 2018, Delzer and Holmberg announced that his budget would not be introduced in the Legislature, a huge slap in the face of the governor.

The District 8 Republican Party Seal of Approval graces the campaign literature of Dave Nehring and David Andahl but not of Rep. Jeff Delzer.
The District 8 Republican Party Seal of Approval graces the campaign literature of Dave Nehring and David Andahl but not of Rep. Jeff Delzer.

In a story in the Bismarck Tribune, the governor later criticized the legislative rule change saying, “We handed over the budget, and that budget is — I don’t want to say tossed in the garbage, but that’s how it felt.”

So it looks to me like there’s a little revenge play at work here. I don’t know for sure that Burgum’s putting up the money for the Dakota Leadership PAC, but I should know in a few days because I think there’s a Pre-Primary Report that has to be filed Friday with the Secretary of State. It takes Al Jaeger a while to get those up on his website, but it will be there eventually, I think. But I can pretty much guess whose name will be on the list.

Meanwhile, maybe some good news reporter will stake out Box 2945 in Fargo some morning and see who goes to get the mail there, and where they take it, to see if it all goes to the same office. It’s all kind of goofy. You’d think if the governor wanted to keep his involvement in a local legislative race to unseat one of his own senior party members a secret, he might have gotten a different post office box. Or maybe he just didn’t care about that.

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