Did The North Dakota Governor's Race Just Get Its Very Own Donald Trump Candidate?

doug burgum

Yesterday Governor Jack Dalrymple surprised political circles in the state (anyone telling you they weren’t surprised is lying) when he announced that he wouldn’t be running for re-election.

Immediately speculation turned to who might run for Governor in Dalrymple’s place, both for Republicans and Democrats.

On the right Lt. Governor Drew Wrigley and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem are almost certainly in. On the left, North Dakota Democrats need Heidi Heitkamp to get into the race in order to have a shot at winning (sorry Mike Jacobs, but Earl Pomeroy isn’t going to run and Ryan Taylor isn’t going to win).

But one name thrown around yesterday as a possible candidate rally caught my eye, nor is it speculation that he’s considering a run. Doug Burgum, the Fargo-based tech millionaire and real estate developer, has said that he’d be interested in a run. And, in words that almost certainly caused some heart palpitations among, Burgum says he might even consider running as an independent:

Burgum, who now splits his time between the venture capital firm Arthur Ventures and Kilbourne Group, a real estate redevelopment firm focused on downtown Fargo, noted in an interview Monday that North Dakota’s last three governors – Dalrymple, Hoeven and Ed Schafer – were all private-sector leaders first.

Burgum said his family’s friendship with Dalrymple goes back more than 30 years; his late brother, Brad, was Dalrymple’s campaign treasurer during his first legislative race in 1984.

“As long as Jack was running I was never going to give it any consideration at all. But I guess at this point, I would be open minded about how things might evolve,” Burgum said, adding that could include being an independent candidate.

Burgum generally identifies as a Republican, and has a long track record of contributing mostly to Republican campaigns (he also contributed to former Senator Kent Conrad), but Democrats like him. Left-wing talker Joel Heitkamp, who was busy yesterday trying to shore up sagging ratings by starting rumors about his own potential candidacy (I’m more likely to win the Mr. Universe contest than Heitkamp is to get elected to statewide office), said he likes Burgum. “There’s a lot of things that Doug does, where I would say, why the heck would I get in his way?” Heitkamp told Mike Nowtazki. “He certainly is no far-right-wing party member.”

So Burgum is sort of squishy, ideologically speaking. He’s not seen as a terribly conservative guy, especially in Republican circles. But that’s not to say he couldn’t have a major impact on the way the 2016 election cycle plays out.

His impact could potentially be Trump-esque. Not in terms of campaign rhetoric – Burgum won’t be storming around the campaign trail throwing bombast and non sequiturs as Trump does – but in terms of that potential for an independent run from an independently wealthy candidate who can afford a vanity campaign.

It’s difficult to see how Burgum could win on the statewide ballot as an independent, or win the NDGOP nomination for that matter. He’s popular in Fargo, sure, but there are hundreds of thousands of people in North Dakota who don’t live in Fargo, who don’t know who Burgum is, and who don’t really care what he’s done for downtown Fargo.

But if Burgum ran as an independent? And peeled off support from a Republican candidate, especially in the Fargo area? That could give Democrats an opening.

I say could, because any given Democrat candidate not named Heidi Heitkamp is going to be operating at a significant disadvantage even someone like Burgum taking some of the oxygen out of the room (he’d likely pull some support from any given Democrat candidate too). To be sure, though, Burgum could have an impact and Republicans have to be thinking about that.

For what it’s worth, one high-ranking Republican dismissed the possibility of Burgum running as an independent. “He won’t run apart from GOP,” I’m told.

We’ll see.