The Big Winner In North Dakota's Gubernatorial Race Will Be The Advertising Industry


“A poll commissioned by North Dakota United—the combined teacher and public worker unions—was released last week and showed us who the real winner in the North Dakota GOP’s hotly contested gubernatorial race will be,” I write in my Sunday column this week.

The answer, of course, is the advertising industry. Because the poll I’m talking (previous post here) about shows Fargo businessman Doug Burgum losing to Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem 59 percent to 10 percent in a potential head-to-head primary match up.

That means Burgum, who is a multi-millionaire and is running a seemingly self-funded campaign largely staffed by his employees, will need to pour money into this race to catch up.

But, as I note in my column, while Burgum’s vast personal fortune may seem like an advantage in that situation it could become a liability if the situation isn’t handled correctly:

Burgum has to start a campaign, probably yesterday, to simultaneously introduce himself to all of these voters who don’t know him and to attack Stenehjem’s status as an immensely popular public official.

That’s going to be a challenge. If the attacks are too vicious, they could backfire, driving as many people away from Burgum as they draw from Stenehjem.

Burgum, a self-made man with an enormous personal fortune, certainly can afford to get it right. But even his money might become an obstacle. The candidates will have to file a pre-primary campaign finance disclosure by May 13. From that point, they also have to disclose contributions of more than $500 every 48 hours until primary day.

If those reports show Burgum largely self-funding his campaign—and political insiders tell me he’s not doing much in the way of fundraising—it might come off to voters as a rich man trying to buy his way into the governor’s mansion.

In fact, some might wonder why Burgum can self-finance his political campaign yet incessantly lobby the state Legislature and local government for tax incentives and other subsidies for his business ventures.

In June Stenehjem and Burgum will square off for Republican primary voters (I’m sorry, I just don’t see third candidate state Rep. Rick Becker emerging from the state convention). The outcome will be a great deal closer than 59-10 as this one poll has suggested. Because Burgum will make up some ground on name recognition, and his inevitable advertising campaign will move the needle.

But can he hope to move it enough? What kind of a marketing campaign can simultaneously overcome an enormous name recognition hurdle, and lower the sky-high approval of a long-time statewide leader, without backfiring on the candidate behind it in the 100 days left before primary day?

I’m not sure Burgum can win this race.

Wayne Stenehjem could lose it, sure, with some major gaffe or a scandal from his long political history coming out of right field.

But I just don’t think Burgum can win it.