Doug Burgum’s Debate Dodging Is Hypocritical


Doug Burgum listens as Ed Schafer is honored at his farewell reception at the Gorecki Alumni Center at UND Thursday. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Marvin Nelson continues to gripe about Republican candidate Doug Burgum’s reticence to schedule general election debates (see my previous post here). And Nelson continues to have a point, particularly when he notes Burgum’s shift in his approach to campaigning:

Nelson says Burgum also declined invitations to a Northwest Landowners meeting and an economic development conference in Bowman, which his lieutenant governor candidate Brent Sanford attended.

“Well all through the primary he complained because Wayne Stenehjem wouldn’t show up for these debates and meetings and everything and then the instant he won, he turned into Wayne Stenehjem. I mean, yeah, I’d have to use the word hypocritical,” said Nelson.

Those comments were made to a NBC affiliate which attempted to schedule a debate between Nelson and Burgum with the latter turning the invitation down claiming prior commitments.

What possible commitment could a gubernatorial candidate in a general election have that is more important than engaging his opponent? Burgum has done plenty to engage with his Republican primary opponents in multiple debates, but he’s yet to engage Nelson.

That’s disappointing. More disappointing is the Burgum campaign’s eye-roll-worthy explanation. “Doug looks forward to debates in the fall and is spending his time meeting with and listening to the concerns of North Dakotans throughout the state,” they said in an emailed statement. “The best leaders spend more time listening than they do talking.”

Give me a break.

Burgum rightly perceived his primary campaign against Stenehjem as a truly competitive race, and thus worked hard to engage with his opponent and the public. It worked. He won in a landslide.

He now rightly perceives the general election campaign as something of a formality in that it’s a competition against a marginal candidate representing a marginalized political party.

But does that mean our expectations of Burgum should be any lower?

I’ll admit to having something of an ulterior motive here. I’m still skeptical of Burgum’s chops as a conservative. The on-going support from Democrats, who seem convinced that his primary campaign as a fiscal conservative was something of a put-on, troubles me.

I’m also bothered by Burgum’s relatively content-free campaign to date. I want policy specifics from him. The “good old boys club” stuff he pushed endlessly was a good way to stir up angsty voters in the primary, but now it’s time to learn how the guy would actually govern.

I feel like Burgum engaging with Nelson, who despite having the wrong political philsophy for my taste is an experienced lawmaker with a deep understanding of policy, would be a good way to learn more about our Republican candidate.

Burgum should quit being coy and schedule multiple debates with Nelson, sooner rather than later. There is literally nothing else he could be doing as a candidate that is more important.