The Dirty Little Secret At The Heart Of North Dakota's Governor Race

Last night Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Fargo businessman Doug Burgum squared off for a debate. It was about what you’d have expected based on the way this competition has unfolded over the last few months. There honestly wasn’t a lot new revealed about either candidate, I thought.

But I did think this line from the Fargo Forum’s Rick Abbott was insightful (emphasis mine): “Stenehjem, who was endorsed by the state GOP, was largely on the defensive, with Burgum lobbing some pointed jabs, though the candidates didn’t find that much to disagree on.

Not much to disagree on.

Isn’t that the truth? The dirty little secret at the heart of what has to be the most vigorously contested primary campaign in state history?

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]The measure of Burgum’s success in a couple of weeks on primary day will be the degree to which North Dakota’s voters have bought his rightward shift.[/mks_pullquote]

It seems as though the candidates in this race have spent most of their time arguing over trivialities. Like whether or not Stenehjem supports Obamacare (he doesn’t), or how to describe North Dakota’s economic and fiscal situation.

But does anyone think there would be a whole lot of difference in how these two men would govern if elected governor?

I think Abbot’s observation makes a lot of sense if we look back at the Burgum campaign’s activities. It all seems about the candidate trying to manufacture contrast with an opponent he probably, in truth, doesn’t disagree with all that often. Stenehjem, as we know from his decades in public service, is a moderate Republican. So is Burgum. But someone like Burgum can’t unseat someone like Stenehjem by campaigning as the same sort of candidate.

Burgum was left with a decision. He has to redefine himself, but how? Does he go to Stenehjem’s left? That’s probably not a good strategy when Democrats here are so marginalized that their inclusion in the governance of the state almost seems like a formality.

Instead Burgum decided to try and go to Stenehjem’s right, branding himself as a rock-ribbed, Trump-loving fiscal conservative and even moving to the right on social issues, a policy area where he has a lengthy record of leaning left.

The measure of Burgum’s success in a couple of weeks on primary day will be the degree to which North Dakota’s voters have bought his rightward shift.

My prediction is that not enough of them have bought it to give Burgum the win. But who knows. This is one weird election cycle, and a candidate with the sort of resources Burgum has at his disposal can make even unlikely things happen.

Rob Port is the editor of, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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