Press "Enter" to skip to content

Possible Lessons from Burgum Win, Corporate Farming Loss in North Dakota

I know nothing about North Dakota politics. But I wonder what we might learn from Fargo businessman Doug Burgum’s upset of North Dakota Attorney General and GOP favorite David Stenehjem in Tuesday’s gubernatorial primary.

When the votes were counted in the spirited Republican primary for governor between Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Fargo entrepreneur Doug Burgum, the first-time candidate for public office not only won by what qualifies as a landslide, he also delivered a staggering blow to the collective chin of the “good ol’ boys” Republican power structure. That good ol’ boy rap, combined with Burgum’s defining Stenehjem and his supporters as “career politicians,” resonated across the state—nearly everywhere [editorial, “ND Voters Said ‘Hell No!’ to Political Status Quo,” Fargo Inforum, 2016.06.14].

North Dakotans are mad at the Establishment. Even in a state where Republicans dominate state government, voters can demand change. Burgum apparently offered them change within their comfortable “R” zone. Dakota Democrats, North and South, need to convince voters that they need to take that change further.

Burgum has been a major contributor to the Republican Party and its candidates, even serving as an honorary co-chair for Dalrymple’s 2012 campaign, but his decision to seek the GOP nomination regardless of the convention’s outcome rubbed many party faithful the wrong way.

“It just kind of shows he doesn’t go with what the people want,” Mari Bondley, 53, a child care provider in Bismarck, said Tuesday after voting for Stenehjem.

Burgum also irked the Legislature’s GOP supermajority – many of whom backed Stenehjem’s candidacy – with ads citing the need to control “runaway” state spending and break up the “good ol’ boy network” in Bismarck. Budget growth and tax revenues hurt by slumping crude oil and farm commodity prices combined to produce a projected $1.07 billion revenue shortfall that triggered cuts in February for most state agencies, and Dalrymple is asking for even leaner budgets for next biennium [“Doug Burgum Wins GOP Nomination for ND Governor,” Grand Forks Herald, 2016.06.14].

Parties are not as strong as popular discontent. An independently wealthy candidate can buck the party leaders, tap voter anger, and steal the nomination from party favorites. Burgum, Trump… what wealthy South Dakota conservative is out there sharpening his or her knives to surprise Jackley, Noem, and Mickelson in our 2018 gubernatorial primary?

But notice that primary voters’ embrace of change and a big-money candidate doesn’t guarantee they’ll support changing the status quo to pass corporate-friendly policy:

North Dakota voters resoundingly rejected a legislative attempt to loosen the state’s corporate farming law with a vote in Tuesday’s primary election.

The ballot measure was meant to affirm a bill passed by the North Dakota Legislature that would have allowed corporate ownership of dairy and hog operations. The change would have allowed corporations to own dairy or hog operations on as much as 640 acres. But the North Dakota Farmers Union got more than 20,000 signatures to put the law on the ballot.

According to the North Dakota Secretary of State’s office, the corporate farming change failed with nearly 76% of voters, 99,045, going against the measure while just 24% of votes, 31,787, voting to go along with the law change.

North Dakota Farmers Union praised the outcome. “We always believed that the people of North Dakota would agree that the family farm structure is best for our state’s economy and our communities,” said Mark Watne, NDFU president. “The results tonight are a strong message that the people don’t want corporate farming in North Dakota” [Chris Clayton, “ND Voters Choose to Keep Corporate Ban on Dairy and Hog Ownership,” DTN Progressive Farmer, 2016.06.15].

North Dakota’s Legislature offered the people an unpopular law. The people responded by rejecting that law and rejecting the political establishment’s candidate. Maybe that’s just a lucky correlation for Burgum, but maybe South Dakota candidates can exploit the two referred laws (Incumbent Protection Plan, Youth Minimum Wage Cut) on our ballot to highlight our Legislature’s bad decision-making and the need for change in Pierre.


  1. MD 2016-06-16

    As a South Dakotan transplanted to ND, Ive spoken about this before, but ND has a history of these types of shake ups.
    In the 1910’s, North Dakotans were angry about outside influence in their politics and farming businesses, so a movement grew that established the Nonpartisan League. The NPL challenged the establishment by running as republicans and winning several seats as well as the governor’s seat. During that time period, ND established their state owned bank and flour mill, which continue to operate to this day, and make ND an odd mix of conservatism and social based policies.
    Unfortunately, the NPL fractured shortly after that, but the Democratic-NPL party continues to this day.

    As I’ve followed the election, I supported the Burgum nomination as a way to help moderate the Republican party in ND. It is always a challenge to beat an R in the midwest, so a moderate candidate might be a good start.

  2. PlanningStudent 2016-06-16

    I want to learn more about when they vote on ballot measures… Always at Primary time or also at General? Does it increase Primary turnout? Decrease the number of ppl voting on the measures?

  3. tim 2016-06-16

    A funny fact about Burgum, in light of the inevitable comparisons to Trump: Doug may be richer than the Donald.
    Expert analysis has pegged Trump’s net worth as far below the billionaire level, perhaps as low as circa $150 million – as Mark Cuban points out, sweating over putting one’s name on knives and steaks and funny schools isn’t very billionairish – which Doug reportedly could match or better on a good day.

  4. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-06-17

    Planning, I’m not strong on North Dakota law, but this summary at Ballotpedia seems to indicate that referred laws go on the next statewide election ballot, primary or general.

Comments are closed.