Since winning the North Dakota Republican Party’s convention endorsement earlier this month, gubernatorial candidate Wayne Stenehjem’s campaign has been mostly quiet.
Sure he pops up here and there in the state’s media. He also announced yesterday that he has the endorsement of popular Senator John Hoeven, though a) that’s not exactly surprising news and b) the way Hoeven worded the endorsement was interesting.
“I support Wayne Stenehjem as the nominee of the party,” Stenehjem’s campaign quotes Hoeven as saying.
Not “I think Stenehjem is the better candidate.”
Not “I think Stenehjem would be a better governor than Doug Burgum.”
No, Hoeven wants us to know that he’s endorsing Stenehjem because he won at the convention. Which makes the statement come off as rote, and something less than inspiring.
Meanwhile, Stenehjem’s primary opponent Doug Burgum has been flooding the zone with an aggressive campaign. His advertising is everywhere. Heck, judging by the postings on Burgum’s social media accounts, the candidate himself is everywhere.
Last night the Burgum campaign reported pulling in 90 people to a campaign event in Linton.
Yes, Linton. Population 1,067.
— Robert Lauf (@RobertLauf) April 14, 2016
Burgum had to of spent at least a million dollars on campaigning before the NDGOP convention. The state doesn’t require disclosure of campaign spending, and Burgum hasn’t been required to file a report on contributions yet, but we know from FCC filings he spent at least $625,000 on broadcast advertising alone.
People close to the Stenehjem campaign have told me their strategy was to quietly focus on delegates before the convention, and then to go big to the general public after the convention.
That makes sense. But we’re now almost two weeks post-convention, and just 62 days away from the June primary vote, and the Stenehjem campaign is largely ceding the public’s attention to Burgum. UPDATE: From a reader: “The first day you can request a ballot for early voting in the primary is May 5. Candidates will start banking votes in that race in 21 days, not 62.”
Earlier this week the Burgum campaign dropped an internal poll which they said showed the two candidates in a “statistical tie.” That same day Stenehjem campaign manager Nate Martindale was at the Twins home opener in Minnesota.
— Nate Martindale (@NateMartindale) April 12, 2016
An oft-heard criticism of Stenehjem this election cycle is that he’s only running for governor because he feels like it’s his turn. That he’s a part of the “establishment” and the “good old boy’s network” and feels entitled to the office.
If Stenehjem is hoping to dispel those thoughts from the minds of voters, running a token campaign against an engaged, aggressive opponent isn’t exactly the way to do it.
Nor is it clear when this is going to change any time soon. On Tuesday, having heard rumors that the Stenehjem campaign was going to be launching an advertising campaign of their own next week, I checked in with Martindale.
“We have not committed to any TV on Monday,” he told me. “I’m not sure where you heard that, but it’s not great information, I’m afraid.”
If not Monday, then when?
Stenehjem is operating under constraints that Burgum doesn’t have. Stenehjem, after all, is still the Attorney General and must attend to all the official duties of that office even while campaigning. Burgum also has a pile of personal wealth he can lean on to self-fund his campaign. There was never any doubt that he’d out-spend Stenehjem.
Yet these are explanations and justifications. I doubt many in the public will care. If you’re explaining, you’re losing.
Stenehjem supporters I’ve spoken to are sounding apprehensive these days. They feel like their candidate is leaving a vacuum for Burgum to fill with his slick, well-funded marketing.
They’re right to be worried.
Going back to that poll the Burgum campaign has been touting, showing a supposed tie in the race, I’ll say that I’m skeptical of the numbers. Polls paid for by political campaigns should always be taken with a grain of salt, but I’d be very surprised if Burgum had gone from being relatively unknown to North Dakota voters to a tie with an extremely popular and accomplished state leader in just a matter of weeks.
That said, there is no question that Burgum’s efforts are narrowing this race, and unless Stenehjem begins to slow him down soon his momentum may become unstoppable.
This is still Stenehjem’s race to lose, I think, but so far he’s losing it.
UPDATE: Originally this post referred to Martindale being at a Twins game the day after the Burgum poll results were released. He was actually at the Twins home opener that same day, April 11. The most has been edited to reflect that.