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MIKE JACOBS: Poll doesn't mean North Dakota governor's race is won

Last week's poll of gubernatorial candidates showed 59 percent of respondents for Wayne Stenehjem and 10 percent for Doug Burgum. So it's all over, right? Not so fast. We haven't seen Burgum's money. We know that Burgum's got money. He sold his c...

Mike Jacobs
Herald Publisher Mike Jacobs

Last week's poll of gubernatorial candidates showed 59 percent of respondents for Wayne Stenehjem and 10 percent for Doug Burgum.

So it's all over, right?

Not so fast.

We haven't seen Burgum's money.

We know that Burgum's got money. He sold his company, Great Plains Software, for $1.1 billion. Sure, the government got some of that. His ex-wife got some of that.

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But Burgum has a lot of money left. More money, probably, than the North Dakota Republican Party.

Of course, voters might resent Burgum if he tried to buy the governorship. Or maybe not. Spending a personal fortune hasn't hurt Donald Trump's chances, at least so far.

Nor have we seen what Burgum might do with the money.

In a debate last week, he uttered a memorable line: "It's about reinvention." He was talking about the approach he would take to government.

But it could be a motto for an election campaign, as well. Burgum was part of the re-invention of technology, and he could be part of its application to politics.

We'll see.

So far, we have seen Burgum try to define himself, but only to a limited audience of Republicans at district conventions and at a debate in Bismarck's Belle Mehus Auditorium.

His self-definition is fiscal hawk, job creator, innovator and evader on social issues. In the debate, he said he'd want to refer any legislation about abortion to voters, for example.

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This definition suggests that he'll showcase his business success, highlighting innovation and job creation. We're likely to hear about all the North Dakota high school graduates who found jobs at his software company.

This could be an appealing campaign, if it's presented effectively.

We don't know what issues Burgum might raise against Wayne Stenehjem, the attorney general and presumptive Republican endorsee.

Or even if he will raise any.

We do know that there are issues out there.

Last week, I heard from a UND fan who blames Stenehjem for the loss of the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo. "He could have made a better deal," is the message there.

I also heard about the death of a North Dakota State College of Science student, who'd been arrested on a minor drug-dealing charge, induced by police to snitch on his suppliers and later found submerged in the Red River, dead from a gunshot wound to the head-and weighted down by a backpack full of rocks.

The family suspects the drug suppliers. Campus police reportedly suggest the death was a suicide.

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But as for the process that turned the student into an informant, Stenehjem's Bureau of Criminal Investigation exonerated the police.

Probably there are other such issues out there. No attorney pursues a career without making enemies.

There's also the theme that Burgum has articulated, as a business leader in government who's out to change the way government is run. This is the "reinvention" theme.

And then there's this: Without a candidate of their own-so far, at least-Democrats may be inclined to vote in the Republican primary, and Burgum may be more attractive to them than Stenehjem.

Democrats have tried to raise the issue of crony government, but in a desultory way.

Burgum might be able to make the point more effectively.

Whether he would reward Democrats for their support is an open question, of course, but certainly he wouldn't be as bound to the Republican club as Stenehjem, who's been an integral part of it since he was elected attorney general in 2000.

Of course, we haven't seen the oil industry's money, either. Stenehjem tweaked the oil boys with his list of special places. He may not be their darling the way that other recent governors have been.

On balance, and despite all of this, Burgum's chances don't seem so good.

But it's a lead pipe cinch he'll get more than 10 percent of the primary vote.

How about a presidential primary?

Minnesotans appear to be getting serious about a presidential primary.

North Dakota ought to be serious about hitching on to it.

As my buddy Jim Fuglie pointed out in his Prairie Blog last week, North Dakota's current system is embarrassing. Republicans essentially appoint their national convention delegates and let them vote however. The Democrats have such a cumbersome process that it discourages participation.

This is quite outside the state's political tradition.

North Dakota's presidential primary more than 100 years ago was the nation's first, and for decades, the primary election choose the candidates for the fall ballot.

Presidential primaries on the same day would bring more attention to both Minnesota and North Dakota, of course-and the attention would only increase if South Dakota adopted it, too.

Syncing up with Wisconsin's primary would increase the interest and the attention.

Imagine a televised debate originating from UND's Chester Fritz Auditorium. Or the Alerus Center. Or Ralph Engelstad Arena.

Or maybe Bismarck's Belle, site of last week's gubernatorial debate.

Oh! Sorry! Too small. Last week's debate audience filled the hall. There were 700 people.

Jacobs is retired as editor and publisher of the Herald. Readers can reach him at mjacobs@gfherald.com .

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