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Port: Burgum's bucks did more harm than good in legislative races

Instead of dumping mailers on voters, why not try talking to them?

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North Dakota Rep. Bill Tveit, R-Hazen, said he has recently received 18 politcal mailers in support of his Republican challengers, Mark Pierce and Anna Novak. The mailers were paid for by Dakota Leadership PAC, a secretive political committee funded entirely by Republican Gov. Doug Burgum.
Photo provided by Bill Tveit
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MINOT, N.D. — My June 11 column asked a question in the headline: "Has Burgum done more harm than good in North Dakota's primaries?"

Now that primary day has come and gone, the answer sure seems to be "yes."

As he's done in previous cycles, Gov. Doug Burgum poured big money into a political messaging machine focused on surrounding voters in key districts with a blizzard of mailers.

Per the most recent reports filed with the Secretary of State's Office, he put more than $1 million of his personal wealth into the effort this cycle.

The payoff is a mixed bag.

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Burgum focused on his spending on races in districts 8, 15, 19, 25, 28, 33, 35, and 29.

Per the unofficial vote counts, as of 11 p.m. central time, his preferred candidates won in 25, 28, and 35. But districts 19, 39, and 33 were a mix of wins and losses, and Burgum's candidates lost big in 15 and 8.

That last, in particular, is a stinging defeat. The last weeks of primary season saw Rep. Jeff Magrum, the decisive winner of the Senate race in 8, make headlines with his blistering rebukes of Burgum's efforts to influence the race.

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Rep. Jeff Magrum, R-Hazelton, holds up an attack ad paid for by Brighter Future Alliance at a press conference in the North Dakota Capitol on Thursday, May 26, 2022.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

District 33 is another one that hurts. Burgum was finally successful in unseating his arch-nemesis, long-time House appropriations chairman Rep. Jeff Delzer. Anna Novak, who Burgum did back, was the top vote-getter while incumbent Rep. Bill Tveit took the second seat.

Mark Pierce, the other House candidate Burgum backed, came in fourth place while in the Senate race, incumbent Sen. Jessica Bell lost to Keith Boehm, who built his campaign around Bell's vote to sustain Burgum's veto of legislation regulating the participation of transgender students in high school sports.

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By the way, here's the complete list of incumbents who won't be going back to the Legislature after the primary:

  • Sen. Jessica Bell (Republican)
  • Rep. Jeff Delzer (Republican)
  • Sen. Dave Oehlke (Republican)
  • Rep. Sebastian Ertelt (Republican)
  • Sen. Robert Fors (Republican)
  • Rep. Greg Westlind (Republican)
  • Sen. Jason Heitkamp (Republican)
  • Rep. Jim Schmidt (Republican)
  • Rep. Tracy Boe (Democrat)
  • Rep. Chuck Damschen (Republican)

If we zoom out a bit from Burgum's specific efforts, the news looks a bit more positive, at least for those of us concerned about the efforts by the Bastiat Caucus of Trump-aligned culture warriors to take over the North Dakota Republican Party.
The best the Bastiats could have hoped for coming out of the primaries was a push. A maintaining of the balance of power. To their credit, I think they've achieved that. Their numbers in the legislature will be about what they were when this election cycle began.

Though they've lost some leadership.

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Caucus founder Rep.Rick Becker didn't run for re-election, and neither did caucus chairman Sen. Oley Larsen. Ertelt, a very visible member of their caucus, is also gone.

But they did beat Burgum-backed candidates in some key areas, and seemingly held on in at least one race where a prominent Bastiat faced a strong challenge (Rep. Jeff Hoverson beat Roscoe Streyle by one vote in District 3, which will trigger an automatic recount).

Suffice it to say that the Bastiats had a good night, despite Burgum's big spending.

Why didn't Burgum's efforts get more traction?

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North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum

I think he leaned too heavily on big spending on marketing, again, and many voters just got fed up with it. Magrum and other Burgum-targeted candidates were able to tap into that backlash turn the tables.

That's not 20/20 hindsight on my part, either.

"Rep. Jeff Magrum ... is a neanderthal with a documented history of trying to intimidate his fellow lawmakers ," I wrote on Saturday , "But instead of focusing on Magrum's manifest problems, which ought to disqualify him from serious consideration for public office, we're watching him hold news conferences, playing the victim while waving mailers in the air. If you've managed to create even a modicum of sympathy for an angry bully like Magrum, you're doing it wrong."

"[T]here's a better way to do this stuff," I wrote almost a month ago, in May . "One that's more open, and more honest, and less cynical."

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I believe those words now, having seen the vote totals, than I did when I wrote them.

I've argued all along that there was nothing illegal, or even unethical, about Burgum's tactics. I still believe that. But their effectiveness, after this primary, is very much in doubt.

Burgum would have been better off taking a less cynical approach. Instead of dumping mailers on voters, why not try talking to them?

Why not hit the campaign trail with the candidates you're backing?

Why not get up on the stump and pay voters the courtesy of explaining your preferences for some candidates and not others?

If Burgum had done that, I think his efforts would have been much better received, even if he'd spent the money on the mailers too.

And that's a lesson for those on the traditional conservative side of this gaping split in the NDGOP. If you want to hold off the Trumpy populists, you're going to have to work for it.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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