By historical standards, it’s a little early to be talking about the North Dakota governor’s race.
At this point in the 2016 election cycle, then-Gov. Jack Dalrymple had yet to decline a re-election campaign for two more months. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem waited until November 2015 before declaring his own bid; Doug Burgum himself didn’t jump in until the following January.
So, when faced with questions about a run for re-election, now-Gov. Burgum has demurred.
“I’d say we have strong interest in continuing the work that we’re doing,” he told the Grand Forks Herald’s editorial board, expressing enthusiasm for the job but falling short of a campaign announcement. Last month, he told the Bismarck Tribune the same thing, though in more colorful terms: “I think if we're trying to read the tea leaves, I'd say we're leaning in.”
Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford put it more explicitly: "It'd be pretty early for an announcement," he told the Tribune.
But if Burgum does decide to run, he’ll do so on the results of a term that began with the Dakota Access Pipeline protests and still sees off-peak oil tax revenues. Notably, that first term has also included a successful campaign to fund a Theodore Roosevelt library and museum; a fight with the legislature over veto power; criminal justice reforms to slow prison growth; and programming plying cities to focus on downtown core growth.
Burgum has enjoyed broad popularity as governor, according to quarterly survey results from Morning Consult, debuting in the middle of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests with a 69 percent approval rating. That’s declined over the past two years, but it’s yet to dip below 53 percent, and now sits at 55 percent — with a 21 percent disapproval rating.
That result makes him the ninth most popular governor in the country, according to the research data firm, and the third most popular facing reelection by the end of 2020.
That’s not to say he would run unopposed. Democrats are expected to run next year on an economic platform, state party chairwoman Kylie Oversen said — on issues like wages, family leave policy and healthcare access. On his right flank, Burgum is faced with fiscal conservatives who believe he has failed to rein in spending. Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, said he’d be pleased to see a small-government candidate challenge the governor, but it likely won’t be him — a decision that leaves the question of a contested GOP primary challenge less clear.
“If there was a very strong, viable, third-party candidate who were to be preaching the gospel of conservatism, that person might be able to take enough votes away to hand Heidi (Heitkamp) a victory,” Becker said, pointing out the recently-defeated Democratic senator’s financial war chest left over from the 2016 campaign. “(Among Democrats), Heidi’s got a snowball’s chance, but that’s about it, in my opinion.”
Heidi Heitkamp told the Herald in January that she had no plans to run for governor. She did not respond to a Herald request for comment, made through Dem-NPL officials, earlier this week.
Burgum does not appear to have any serious threats from established, longtime Republicans. U.S. Attorney and erstwhile Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley recently told the Herald’s editorial board that he’s not weighing the governor’s race and is happy in his current post. Stenehjem, a bitter 2016 primary opponent of Gov. Burgum, said through a party representative that he’s not weighing the race, either.
Even though the proper beginning of the race is likely months away, Democrats are weighing their strategy and starting to think of candidates — though none has openly voiced intent to run.
“We’ve got a few people in mind that we hope to talk to, but no one who has jumped forward and expressed interest,” Oversen, the Dem-NPL chairwoman, said of gubernatorial candidates.
That’s borne out in calls the Herald made to prominent Democrats. Former Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2018, said a gubernatorial run from him is highly unlikely. Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck, the minority caucus leader, said she’d prefer to spend time with her young son.
State Rep. Josh Boschee, D-Fargo and the House Minority Leader, left the door open. He’s fresh off a defeat of his own in a bid for secretary of state, but his loss was the closest a statewide Democrat came last year to victory — 8 points away.
“I’m certainly more interested in making sure I represent north Fargo again,” he said. “(But) at this point I’m not ruling anything out.”
Oversen gave a preview of some of the opposition Burgum might face next year. She criticized his signature on a bill curtailing a kind of second-trimester abortion procedure this session, as well as for the Legislature’s edits to the voters’ measure to establish a state ethics board.
“From my perspective, and I think people of most parties, Burgum campaigned on breaking up the good old boys club, of draining the swamp, whatever … and he has, in my perspective, been the opposite of that,” Oversen said. “He’s very much become part of that establishment in the capitol.”
Whoever the Dem-NPL nominates for a run at the governor’s mansion, 2020 comes at the end of decades of party woes, as a slow backward slide in support since at least the 1990s leaves it with far less power. The average statewide Democratic candidate won 37.6 percent of the vote in the 2018 election, worse than they performed at any point during the Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies.
State Rep. Corey Mock, the former House minority leader, pointed out that Democrats are faced with the challenge of defining themselves in a state where their party doesn’t always resemble their national counterparts — no minor feat when many North Dakotans get news from national outlets.
“I don’t think anybody is fooling themselves about the political makeup of North Dakota,” Schneider said. “The math is pretty challenging.”
Burgum might be widely expected to run, but Mike Schrimpf, his political spokesperson, didn’t give any more hints than the governor. In a response to a list of questions about Burgum’s current term and possible campaign for re-election, he argued that the governor has responsibly managed the state budget, the local economy and relations with tribal leaders.
“North Dakotans support Gov. Burgum and Lt. Gov. Sanford because they’ve delivered conservative results and the state is thriving,” he said. “They work closely with President Trump and his cabinet leaders, and their bold, transformational agenda is reinventing state government to better serve its customers, the hardworking taxpayers.”
A question he didn’t directly answer was about Burgum’s current thinking on a re-election campaign — leaving voters waiting to find out what he’ll do for sure.
But that won’t stop speculation.
“My guess is Doug is going to wait a long time to formally announce, and when he does, nobody else is going to want to get in,” Becker said of the race — the GOP side of it, at least. “Because they’ll view it as a suicide mission.”