BISMARCK — Working relationships are strained within the dominant North Dakota Republican Party as the June primary elections near.
Several of the party's prominent elected leaders have called foul on Gov. Doug Burgum over what they perceive as an effort to remold state government with his personal fortune.
In recent weeks, Burgum, a former tech mogul, has contributed $875,000 to the newly formed Dakota Leadership PAC, according to campaign filings. The political committee has targeted the seat held by Republican House Appropriations Chairman Jeff Delzer with promotional ads and mailings in support of his intra-party challengers, David Andahl and Dave Nehring. The committee has also backed Fargo Rep. Thomas Beadle's run for state treasurer.
Robbie Lauf, a former Burgum advisor who is in charge of the well-funded committee, said in an email it was formed to "help elect conservative Republicans who share the governor's vision to strengthen the economy, improve our Main Streets and embrace legacy investments in North Dakota’s future." Lauf did not respond to Forum News Service's request for a more in-depth interview.
Party chairman Rick Berg said the degree to which the committee has involved itself in the party's primary races is "new ground," but he declined to comment further.
House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, called Burgum's financial maneuvering "an interference" in legislative races by the state's executive branch. Pollert and Delzer said the governor's actions suggest he is trying to do away with the separation of powers that uphold fairness in the electoral process.
Pollert added that while contributing monetary support to candidates is certainly legal and not uncommon for officeholders, it is virtually unprecedented to make such high-dollar donations before a primary election.
Pollert and several other Republican leaders who spoke with Forum News Service said Burgum's involvement in the primaries and the divisions within the party that emerge will likely have implications beyond campaign season.
"This is going to create some rifts and major problems during the next (legislative) session," Pollert said. "(Lawmaking) takes people to work together to get anything done, and this will make it more difficult. There’s no doubt about that."
Burgum campaign spokesman Mike Schrimpf said the governor was unavailable for comment on this story.
Not really a 'PAC'
Despite the name, the Dakota Leadership PAC is not classified as a "political action committee" under state campaign finance laws. Instead, it's labeled a "multicandidate committee" on the Secretary of State's website.
The designations are similar, but unlike a true PAC, a multicandidate committee does not legally have to report exactly how and where it spends money. The funds from a multicandidate committee can be used for a wide range of political purposes, but specific details of the expenditures won't show up anywhere in state filings unless a candidate reports a direct contribution over $200 from one of the committees, state elections specialist Lee Ann Oliver said.
Filings show that the Dakota Leadership committee has taken in nearly $1.1 million since the beginning of April. In addition to Burgum's contributions, out-of-state donors gave $169,000 to the committee. Many of the donors, including medical company executive Miles White, share longtime personal or business relationships with Burgum. Other in-state donors are Burgum's relatives.
Due to the nature of the committee, it's unknown how much of the money it has spent on Delzer's race or any other. However, Lauf told the Associated Press the committee was supporting candidates in six unspecified legislative races and the treasurer's race.
Beadle said he has not coordinated at all with the committee and has "no idea" what the committee has spent on his race for treasurer. He said the committee's support of his candidacy was a surprise but that he was glad to have the help.
Outside of the committee, Burgum has personally contributed $25,000 to Beadle’s campaign and at least $43,000 to nearly 30 other Republican candidates for legislative seats and statewide office during this election cycle. The governor, who faces reelection in November, has also contributed $287,500 to his own campaign fund.
Beadle praised Burgum’s business-oriented and data-driven approach to government, but he noted that he has not been in complete lockstep with Burgum since the governor took office in 2017.
Burgum has spent more money in campaign contributions than any other elected leader in the state, but he's far from the only one supplying funds to candidates in the lead-up to the primary elections.
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and a host of Republican state lawmakers have also contributed to Beadle's campaign.
The Badlands PAC, which is affiliated with U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., has given more than $22,000 to Beadle's opponent in the treasurer's race, state Rep. Dan Johnston, R-Kathryn.
State Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, and several other ultra-conservative members of the Legislature who call themselves "the Bastiat Caucus" have also supported Johnston with donations.
Johnston said it means a lot to have the support of Cramer and the Bastiats, a group with which he has identified in the past. He added that he thinks Burgum's involvement in his race is unfortunate and potentially problematic, but he said he would work with the governor if elected.
Current Republican Treasurer Kelly Schmidt endorsed Johnston and dismissed the governor's actions as "shameful."
“I grew up where you didn’t destroy your adversaries, but you tried to grow together," Schmidt said. "I find it kind of perplexing that he’s trying to destroy people.”
Schmidt and Johnston said they worried Burgum's promotion of only certain Republicans will send a message to lawmakers that disagreeing with the governor could sink their next campaign.
A growing division
Burgum has never publicly expressed that he would like to unseat Delzer, but there has been occasional friction between the two powerful politicians in the past.
While running for governor in 2016, Burgum condemned what he called the "good old boy" establishment in the Legislature, which unsettled many well-established lawmakers.
Prior to the 2019 legislative session, Delzer was instrumental in a push to change rules that functionally threw out the governor's budget proposal in favor of using the Legislature's previous appropriations to begin the budgeting process. Burgum criticized the rule change at the time.
Delzer, who has been in the Legislature since the 1990s, also joined Becker and the Bastiat Caucus in voting against a conditional $50 million endowment for the proposed Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library, a Burgum-backed project. The bill eventually passed the Legislature by a wide margin.
In addition to Beadle and Delzer's challengers, Burgum has endorsed and contributed campaign funds to two state representatives, Jim Grueneich and Mike Brandenburg, leaving out incumbent Republican and Bastiat-supported candidate Jeff Magrum.
There has long been a division between the Bastiat Caucus and the rest of the Republicans in the state. In 2017, the Bastiats considered trying to become the minority party in the House, but the idea was scrapped after they determined it would be too damaging to Republicans, Becker said.
Beadle said the rift caused by the Bastiats is well known, and he commended Burgum for "finally stepping up and putting his money where his mouth is."
Becker, who founded the ultra-conservative caucus, thinks a three-way split will occur within the party because of the governor's involvement in the primaries. He floated that the Bastiats, Burgum allies and establishment lawmakers will each form their own factions heading into the next legislative session.
Pollert noted that he thought the Legislature and Burgum had made strides to get along after a shaky start to the relationship, but he said recent events could unravel that progress.
Berg, the party chairman, took a different view and said there's bound to be some differences of opinion within a party that holds every statewide office and a super-majority in the Legislature. He added that working through some of the rifts will strengthen the party in the end.
Even though Becker rarely saw eye-to-eye with Burgum in the past, he said this episode has given him a very unfavorable view of the governor.
"It really starts to shine a window into someone who has a very elitist view," Becker said. "How can you not care how this looks unless you really think you know what's best for everyone? I'm looking at him with a different lens these last few weeks."