Four years ago, on the morning after the 2016 North Dakota Primary Election, I wrote a column with the headline “What The Hell Just Happened?”
Doug Burgum pulled off one of the biggest upsets in North Dakota political history, giving Wayne Stenehjem a sound beating in their race for the Republican nomination for governor.
Burgum did it by spending a couple of million dollars of his own money. In doing so, he changed politics in North Dakota forever. He showed that election victories can be bought. And Tuesday, history repeated itself. Burgum used his enormous wealth to buy a few more.
I didn’t predict that Burgum win in 2016, but when asked prior to the 2016 primary by several people how it might turn out, I said, “Nobody ever got rich betting against Doug Burgum.” The man usually gets what he sets his mind (or his checkbook) to.
I didn’t have a dog in any of the fights Burgum was involved in this year, although I got a text last week from a friend and longtime political observer that said, “I’d bet on Johnston (in the Treasurer’s race), but the wager would have to be a small one.” I called him and took the bet, for a bottle of wine.
But I sure don’t like what’s going on here. So far this year, Burgum has invested more than $2 million in North Dakota elections, most of it in financing his Dakota Leadership PAC, but also $100,000 in his own re-election campaign and more than $30,000 in direct contributions to Republican legislative candidates. That kind of spending on North Dakota elections is unprecedented and, I think, ugly.
A newspaper reporter this week compared what he’s doing to the machine built by Alexander McKenzie in the 19th century. Not a bad comparison. We’ve had some attempts at building political machines here — the Nonpartisan League in the early 20th century, and Bill Langer’s personal popularity, which made him attorney general, governor and U.S. senator — but none were built using someone’s personal wealth.
The last time I can remember anyone digging deep into their own pocket to run a race was 40 years ago, in 1980, when Kent Johanneson, who had a pocketful of oil money at the time from wise investments in the state’s first big oil boom, agreed to put up $100,000 of his own money against Mark Andrews in Andrews’ first run for the U.S. Senate.
Andrews, our state’s long-time congressman, was running to replace Sen. Milton Young, who was retiring. Democrats tried to recruit popular Tax Commissioner Byron Dorgan to run against him, but Dorgan had been down that road before, losing to Andrews in the 1974 congressional race, and wasn’t eager to see his political career come to an end, since his term as tax commissioner was expiring that year.
Johanneson had run a respectable race for attorney general four years earlier, losing to Allen Olson, and agreed to fill the moat in the race against Andrews with $100,000 of his own money — a princely sum in those days — if the party would help him raise another $100,000. North Dakota’s Democratic senator, Quentin Burdick, walked Johanneson around to a bunch of labor union offices in Washington and picked up that $100,000, and Kent got a respectable 30 percent of the vote against Andrews. And then faded off into political obscurity.
That 1980 election was the year of the Reagan Republican landslide, when Art Link lost the governor’s race to Allen Olson and North Dakota Democrats lost almost all of the statewide offices and most of their legislative seats. Two Democrats survived: Dorgan was elected to Congress, and Kent Conrad won his first statewide election, to succeed Dorgan as tax commissioner. You know the rest of the story. Conrad made Andrews a one-term senator, pulling off the other major upset in North Dakota politics, in 1986, and he and Dorgan served side-by-side in the Senate for nearly 20 years after that.
But I digress. Forgive an old political junkie for reminiscing. (But if you want another dose of North Dakota political history, here’s a column I wrote last year as well.)
Tuesday Burgum bought himself a bunch of legislative seats and the state treasurer’s office. With his help, challengers to Rep. Jeff Delzer in District 8 ran almost $100,000 worth of television advertising against Delzer, the once-powerful North Dakota House Appropriations Committee chairman who had pissed Burgum off in the 2019 Legislature, and the PAC probably spent a like amount on other media on their behalf, in what was surely the most expensive primary election race ever in North Dakota. They won. Burgum got his revenge.
The other big recipient was State Rep. Thomas Beadle, who got a big $25,000 check from Burgum personally, but was the beneficiary of what might be as much as half a million dollars of spending by Burgum’s PAC. No one will know because the money wasn’t given to Beadle but spent on his behalf, and the PAC doesn’t have to reveal where it spent its money, most of which came from Burgum.
No one will know what kind of state treasurer Beadle will be, either, but if his phony “elect an outsider” campaign is any indication, he won’t be much better than the grossly incompetent Kelly Schmidt, who he will replace. I say “phony” because no one is less of an outsider than Beadle, who’s served the last 10 years in the North Dakota Legislature, whose grandfather is former longtime legislative leader Earl Strinden, and whose mother is married to former State Sen.r Tony Grindberg (who, by the way, lost his seat on the Fargo City Commission Tuesday).
Burgum’s PAC invested in other Republican primary races as well, with some mixed results. He gave $1,500 to losing Senate candidate Al Anderson in Mandan’s District 34, maybe as payback for firing Anderson as state commerce commissioner when he took office. He spent $2,500 trying unsuccessfully to oust ultraconservative Rep. Jeff Magrum in District 28 with a check to carpetbagger Jim Grueneich. But he backed winners in Jamestown’s District 12 and Traill County’s District 20.
Altogether, Burgum wrote personal checks for $30,500 to legislative and statewide candidates and $100,000 to his own campaign for governor in addition to the nearly $2 million to his PAC. The state’s never seen anything like this before. Kind of makes you shiver.
So now, we move on to the fall general election. Burgum’s probably still got a million dollars or more in his PAC, and several hundred million of his own money, to finish off the Democrats in November. Not that the Republicans need it, running against a pretty weak slate of Democrats. With or without Burgum’s money, a demoralized North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party probably isn’t going to win many elections this year.
But that’s a story for another day. Right now, I’ve got to go collect a bottle of wine. Because nobody ever won a bottle of wine betting against Doug Burgum. By the way, Mike, my wine of choice is Silver Oak.