Gov. Doug Burgum was reelected Nov. 3 in a fashion typical in North Dakota – a landslide victory for a Republican incumbent. Statistically, it’s an impressive win and a high perch from which Burgum can begin his second term in office.
Is the win as impressive as it appears? Not quite.
Does it indicate at least a small feeling of discontent among North Dakota’s voters? Perhaps.
Burgum beat Democratic challenger Shelley Lenz by getting 65.8% of the vote. The governor’s 235,379 votes easily beat Lenz’s 90,763. Adding to the intrigue was this: Write-in candidates, led by Michael Coachman, received 5% of the vote. That’s stunning.
In a state that votes heavily for Republicans, there was no way Burgum was going to lose this race. The governor, apparently confident, even declined to speak with the Herald and Forum News Service for stories that would have published in the weeks leading up to the election. He turned down our request for an interview after the election, too. That doesn’t happen with candidates who lack confidence.
Lenz was a complete unknown who did not appear to campaign much. Yet Burgum – who has had the political luxury of statewide broadcast press conferences during the pandemic – saw his margin of victory decrease when compared to 2016’s election. Against Democrat Marvin Nelson in 2016, Burgum received 259,863 votes – some 24,000 more votes than this time. Meanwhile, Lenz had 90,763 votes, nearly 25,000 more than Nelson received in 2016.
Are a growing number of voters dissatisfied with his leadership during the pandemic? Did his meddling in Republican races – he donated large sums of money to his preferred candidates – raise eyebrows? Have his battles with legislative leaders reduced his sway?
Perhaps all of the above, but it will matter little. Burgum generally has been popular in his first four years in office and the state has run well under his leadership. It’s difficult to make strong deductions in a state heavily represented by just one party. During a pandemic, it’s tougher yet.
However, the reduced vote count could indicate more North Dakotans are questioning his leadership during the coronavirus crisis. In the weeks leading up to and since the election, North Dakota has been getting all sorts of negative press for COVID-19 rates that are among the worst in the nation. Dr. Deborah Birx, during a visit to Bismarck, criticized the state for its low rate of mask use and many have called for some sort of statewide mandate or lockdown.
North Dakota does not have term limits for governor, so Burgum could run again in 2024. If he would choose to do so, the state’s Republicans probably would easily give him another term.
Burgum’s win this month was a landslide, but if the governor wants to be a true leader during the pandemic and the next two sessions of the Legislature, he should consider what that reduced margin of victory might possibly mean.