FARGO - In the last two weeks leading up to the primary election, gubernatorial candidates Doug Burgum and Wayne Stenehjem ran an average of 188 TV ads everyday on the main broadcast networks burning an average of $39,000 a day.
It's a glimpse into what many believe is the most expensive primary campaign in state history, pitting one of the state's wealthiest residents against a well-known member of the Republican Party establishment for a place on the November ballot.
But a glimpse is about all that most North Dakotans will ever get about the cost of the race, which would help explain the growing role of money in state politics. State law does not require candidates to disclose how they spent their campaign funds nor does it require much depth in their personal financial disclosures.
The information about TV ads came from the federal government, which requires disclosures of ads going over public airwaves. There were other Republicans in the race but none bought air time and their war chests were considerably smaller than Burgum's and Stenehjem's.
North Dakota is the only state that does not require disclosure of campaign spending, according to the Center for Public Integrity, which researched states' ethics laws last year. CPI data also shows North Dakota's requirement on personal financial disclosures are tougher than some but not as much as others.
Burgum, the wealthy entrepreneur, did end up beating Stenehjem, the state attorney general, decisively 59 percent to 39 percent despite the party throwing its support behind the latter.
Shedding light on spending
Among states other than North Dakota, requirements for spending reports vary in strength.
Gubernatorial candidates in South Dakota, for example, must report how much they raised and spent at least three times in an election year and once in other years. Itemization is only required for some spending, such as fundraising activities, while only the total is required for other spending, such as advertising or travel.
Gubernatorial candidates in Minnesota, however, must report six times a year in an election year and once in other years. All spending must be itemized except petty cash purchases of $100 or less per week.
Last year, North Dakota Democrats pushed a bill requiring spending to be reported with campaign contributions, which must be done three times in an election year. Candidates for state and legislative offices would've had to itemize any spending exceeding $200. That effort, like past efforts at transparency in campaign financing, were quashed by the Republican supermajority. Rep. Scott Louser, R-Minot, claimed there is no need for the law because polls show state residents trust lawmakers and that some vendors prefer not to be publicly identified as working for one candidate or another.
So what can we know about the cost of the Burgum vs. Stenehjem contest?
Burgum raised at least $1.3 million before the primary election. The exact amount isn't yet available because the pre-primary filing period ended May 5, which is 40 days before the election. Because cash flow is part of the report, we know Burgum spent at least $667,000 as of May 5, but that's far less than the actual amount spent. Broadcast TV ads in that period alone totaled at least $799,000, according to data from the Federal Communications Commission.
Between May 5 and Election Day, only contributions of $500 or more need be reported immediately; the law says within 48 hours. Burgum reported in these 48-hour statements at total of $436,000, more than a third of the $1.3 million.
The next reporting deadline is Oct. 7, 40 days before the general election, followed by a year-end report due Jan. 31.
Stenehjem has estimated that Burgum spent $5 million to $6 million, implying, as his ads have, that Burgum had tried to buy up the election with his great wealth.
Burgum has called that an exaggeration but said he has spent more of his money than the amount he raised. He said he needed to do so to overcome the name recognition Stenehjem has built over decades in public service.
FCC data shows Burgum's broadcast ads alone totaled at least $1.7 million, not including possible duplicates. This amount does not include ad buys with cable companies, which are not required to report, though Midcontinent Communications has said Burgum bought $244,000 in ads from the company.
Stenehjem reported raising at least $1.1 million. Of that, $311,000 or 30 percent were raised in the 40 days before Election Day. Cash flow in the pre-primary report showed $388,000 of the funds raised had been spent. Broadcast-ad buys in that period were at least $198,000.
FCC data shows Stenehjem spent $665,000 in broadcast ads.
While Burgum is one of the wealthiest candidates in recent history - he famously sold his software firm to Microsoft in 2000 for $1.1 billion - his personal financial disclosures don't tell voters much.
North Dakota requires gubernatorial candidates to report how they and their spouse earned money, and their business interests and relationships. But they don't have to report exactly how much or even a range, as federal candidates must. They don't have to report property they own, and other immediate family members, such as children and parents, don't have to file any report.
The disclosure requirements are tougher than some states and laxer than others.
According to CPI, 31 states require other immediate family members to file. Two states - Idaho, Michigan and Vermont - had no disclosure requirements of any kind.
Minnesota only requires disclosures from candidates not their family members while South Dakota requires disclosures from candidates, their spouses and minor children living at home.
Minnesota requires disclosure of most sources of income, as well as stocks, interests in pari-mutuel horse racing and properties other than the candidates' homes. South Dakota requires disclosures only of sources of income that exceed $2,000 or 10 percent of the household income each year. Neither state requires specific dollar amounts or a range.
The venture capitalist
Burgum's disclosure of his personal financial interests do give a glimpse of the breadth of his business interests if not any dollar amounts.
As his principal source of income, he does not list a specific business in his disclosure, checking off only "investor or retired."
Many of his investments are included in a list of his business relationships such as Arthur Ventures, a venture capital firm that Burgum is a partner in. The firm has interests in nearly two dozen software firms, including Intelligent Insites, a Fargo software firm where Burgum is executive chairman. He is also chairman of Atlassian, an Australian software firm, and president of Kilbourne Group, which owns more than two dozen downtown Fargo properties.
It's an exotic list in a state where farming and oil has dominated the economy.
Burgum may have other business relations but state law only requires candidates to list those that could potentially be affected by state lawmakers or executive actions.
Secondary sources of income include a trust in Burgum's name, a retirement account, the Burgum farm and about a dozen other businesses or trusts.
The Forum requested Stenehjem's personal financial disclosure and that of other candidates Friday, July 29, but hadn't received it from the state as of the end of the day.