Can Democrats Put Doug Burgum Over The Top In An Open Republican Primary?

doug burgum

Back in January, shortly after Doug Burgum announced his campaign for governor, I wrote that years of incompetence by North Dakota Democrats might actually be a boon for him.

North Dakota has no voter registration and a wide open primary ballot. Democrats can vote for Republican candidates, and with Democrats unlikely to field competitive nomination races (or, in many races, any candidate at all) the theory is that it may behoove the liberals to vote for Burgum who many see as a sort of left-of-center Republican.

Maybe enough to put Burgum over the top against presumed opponent Wayne Stenehjem.

I have to admit that since writing that I’ve come to think that this is an unlikely scenario, but today in his column Mike Jacobs resurrects the idea:

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.

I’m beginning to think that this is more something political nerds like to debate than something which may get traction with the greater electorate.

Here are some reasons why I don’t think Democrats can put Burgum over the top.

Stenehjem already has a lot of cross over appeal

When political people speak to me about Burgum’s appeal to Democrats they often forget Stenehjem’s own crossover appeal. In both 2014 and 2010 Stenehjem won re-election to the Attorney General’s office with over 74 percent of the vote. That doesn’t happen without a chunk of Democrats being pretty comfortable with voting for Stenehjem.

It’s not just a partisan issue

Burgum’s big obstacle may not be partisan or ideological but rather geographical. Burgum needs votes in western North Dakota (he needs them in eastern ND too if recent polling is any indication). Maybe Democrat voters in eastern North Dakota where Burgum is the most well known will cross over in the primary, but how about western Democrats? With them it’s not just that Burgum is a Republican, but that he’s a downtown Fargo Republican. That could be a problem.

Who is going to organize the effort?

While we political wonks flatter ourselves by thinking that everyone is paying as close attention to this stuff as we are, the truth is that most in the electorate probably aren’t even aware that Burgum could benefit from an open primary. In order for this to work, someone is going to have to tell rank and file Democrat voters to turn out for Doug Burgum, but who is going to do that?

Are Democrats going to tell their party members to vote in a Republican primary? Probably not.

Can Burgum campaign to Democrats? That would probably cost him more Republican voters than he’d gain from Democrats.

I don’t think Democrats are going to spontaneously decide to support Burgum.

There just aren’t that many Democrats in North Dakota

This one is pretty obvious. In the 2014 primary election Republican candidates got roughly twice the number of votes compared to the Democrats even in races where both party’s candidates ran unopposed. This was also true in the 2012 primary election when Republicans had competitive races for the U.S. Senate (Rick Berg vs. Duane Sand) and the U.S. House (Kevin Cramer vs. Brian Kalk).

North Dakota Democrats have set a date for their statewide convention, yet they have yet to announce any actual statewide candidates. And while I don’t have the specifics yet – per a conversation with the Secretary of State’s office this morning they’ll be updating the candidate filings online this week – anecdotally it doesn’t seem as though the Democrats are doing all that great recruiting legislative candidates either.

Democrats are a greatly diminished political movement in this state, and I’m not sure they have a juice to swing a Republican primary election.