North Dakota governor spends against members of own party in primaries
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (R) is digging into his own pockets to fund a handful of Republican candidates running for state legislative seats this year in an effort to reshape the politics of one of the most conservative states in the country.
Burgum, serving his second term, has contributed nearly $1 million to a political action committee run by a former top staffer that is said to be spending big on key legislative races across the state ahead of next month’s primary elections. In a state where Democrats are an afterthought, Burgum allies say putting a thumb on the scale in legislative races is the most effective way he can spend.
“The mission of the PAC is to elect conservative Republicans who share the governor’s vision to move North Dakota forward,” said Levi Bachmeier, Burgum’s former policy director who now heads the Dakota Leadership PAC. “We don’t have a highly robust Democratic Party in most parts of the state. So this is just to bring transparency to our party primaries.”
Bachmeier declined to discuss the races in which the PAC is involved, and campaign filings do not yet disclose how the group has spent its money.
But much of the spending appears to be aimed at a conservative faction of state legislators who call themselves the Bastiat Caucus — named for the 19th century French economist and parliamentarian Frédéric Bastiat — who have become a thorn in Burgum’s side.
“The establishment has gone after aggressively this conservative group. They’ve branded and labeled this conservative group extremists, so now we’re not conservatives, we’re ultra-conservative,” said Gary Emineth, a former chairman of the North Dakota Republican Party. “It’s unprecedented at this level to have an executive spend his money to knock off legislators.”
Emineth said Burgum’s PAC has targeted “at least a dozen races” in this year’s GOP primary.
Observers say the schism within the North Dakota Republican ranks has emerged along with the dual rises of Burgum and former President Trump, who both won election as outsider candidates in 2016. Both were multimillionaire businessmen before they entered politics, and both defeated far more established politicians; Burgum beat out former state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem (R) by a 20-point margin to win the Republican nomination.
But their similarities largely ended in their approach to governing, if not in their conservatism.
“The Trump movement has sparked a big divide in the party between the populist culture warriors and traditional Republicans,” said Rob Port, author of the Say Anything Blog that covers North Dakota politics.
“Trump is one factor. It does have a lot to do with that, even with folks that have gotten involved since the 2020 election. But it’s much bigger than that,” said Jared Hendrix, a district Republican Party chairman who is aligned with members of the Bastiat caucus. “Burgum took a big-city approach to North Dakota politics that we haven’t seen in a long time. To his credit, he’s got money, he hires the professionals, he does the polling, he does what he needs to to get elected.”
Though Republicans hold an overwhelming supermajority in the legislature, Hendrix said, the more conservative faction has felt stymied in recent years.
“We have a 7-1 Republican majority legislature. Last session, they shot down every election integrity bill, they shot down every single significant tax relief bill in the middle of a pandemic,” he said.
Burgum, who held a senior position at Microsoft and founded several North Dakota-based investment businesses before winning election in 2016, has long funneled money to Republican causes. In 2020, he sent $3.2 million to the Dakota Leadership PAC — some of which went to a campaign to oust state Rep. Jeff Delzer (R), the powerful chairman of the state House Appropriations Committee, with whom he clashed over the state budget.
Delzer lost his bid for renomination. But one of the two men who beat him, David Andahl (R), died from complications of the coronavirus before Election Day. The local Republican Party returned Delzer to the legislature to fill the vacancy.
Now, Burgum advisers say he is spending his money to elect legislators who will be allies in Bismarck.
“Fundamentally, we believe competition is a good thing, that choice is a good thing,” Bachmeier said. “It’s not related to a particular vote or a particular issue. North Dakota’s best days are ahead of it. We’ve got a strong balance sheet.”
Plenty of governors involve themselves in races that shape the legislatures with whom they must work. But the scale of Burgum’s involvement in legislative races is unlike anything North Dakotans have seen, in a state where the average legislative district has a little over 16,000 residents.
“When you dump half a million dollars into a small district, it’s unprecedented,” Hendrix said. “He’s become his own good old boy club. He’s become the establishment.”
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