Sleuthing the Mystery of the Burgum-Stenehjem Race

The Republican gubernatorial race has North Dakota’s political pundits scratching their heads, searching for an explanation for the upset of a popular Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem by political novice Doug Burgum.

Omdahl COLUMN BOXWas it the Burgum conservative message that resonated with North Dakotan Republicans?
Burgum pitched a super-conservative fiscal policy, implying that Stenehjem was guilty of conspiring with the governor and the Legislature of playing fast and loose with the taxpayers’ money.
Legislative Majority Leaders Senator Rich Wardner and Representative Al Carlson, after years of penny-pinching,   were appropriately offended by the allegation.
The Legislature had reduced income taxes and property taxes while hiding all extra money in dedicated funds safely under the state mattress.  In fact, North Dakota’s tax burden ranks the 39th lowest in the country, hardly a ranking for spendthrifts.
But in the public mind taxes are always too high and Burgum fanned this latent taxphobia. However, the state’s fiscal track record indicates that this was not a cutting issue.
For a majority of taxpayers, tax-cutting in the present fiscal environment could hardly be a high priority.  Even so, taxphobia is always good for a few votes so let’s concede that Burgum eked out a few thousand of his 23,000-vote margin with this issue.
Is the mystery solved by claiming that Democrats did it in the polling place? On the surface, the election returns give cause to suspect the Democrats because their primary turnout was a dismal 17,000, about one-third to one-half of their historical norm.
In the 2014 primary, around 30,000 Democrats voted; in 2012, 57,000 Democrats appeared for their primary. So, if Democratic raiding did occur, would all Democrats have voted tor Burgum or would some have voted for Stenehjem?
In view of the virtual certainty of a Republican victory in the fall, smart Democrats would have voted for Stenehjem.  After all, Burgum was promising an even tougher fiscal conservatism than the Legislature, meaning even less spending on the social programs that Democrats have always supported.
Another thing, Burgum promised to be a business governor.  If he delivers on that promise, he will shift state budgeting from a broad spectrum of programs to a more narrow pro-business tax-cutting strategy.
But maybe some Democrats just wanted to lash out against the Republican establishment that has been beating them for years and this was their opportunity to strike. It’s a safe guess that this happened. So let’s say Democrats gave Burgum several thousand of his 23,000-vote margin.
This meddling in the Republican primary will bring payback to Democrats. It provides justification for Republicans to require voter registration, something that would suppress more Democratic than Republican votes.
There is no mystery to the fact that Burgum was the first candidate in the media and on the road.  In February, a poll gave Stenejhem 59 percent to Burgum’s 10 percent- an insurmountable lead by all standards. This led to apathy in the Stenejhem camp.
With Stenehjem the top vote getter in every election,   he looked so solid that early spending of big bucks by Burgum couldn’t beat him. The Stenehjem strategists probably thought the same thing because their campaign didn’t really crank up until later in the spring.  So we must give Burgum a few thousand votes for a strong early start.
Then there was Former Governor Ed Schafer’s endorsement, probably the most impactful message in the whole campaign.   Not only was Schafer’s presentation crisp and authoritative but it also gave credibility to Burgum’s candidacy. For Schafer, Burgum gets another couple thousand votes.
So if Burgum picks up a few thousand votes here, another few thousand there, the next thing you know he has a 23,000-vote margin. There isn’t much mystery to that.