GRAND FORKS — North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum stood behind a podium in late May, emotionally urging the state’s residents to wear masks and to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. In video clips that rocketed around the internet, he argued that masks aren’t political — they’re to keep North Dakotans safe. They’re to help a 5-year-old with cancer, he said, or on behalf of ailing senior citizens.
“And so again, I would just love to see our state, as part of being North Dakota smart, also be North Dakota kind, North Dakota empathetic, North Dakota understanding,” Burgum said.
It was the picture of a governor beyond politics, pleading with North Dakotans to set aside their differences and work for the greater good. And it was in keeping with his political brand — of a jeans- and blazer-wearing tech executive who has entered state politics and who is, by all appearances, genuinely optimistic about North Dakota’s power to reinvent itself.
But as Burgum said those words, he was two months deep into walking a political tightrope, juggling the economy and public health. He notably closed bars, restaurants and the like, but had resisted a statewide stay-at-home order. In the months since, he’s balked at mask mandates, too. Throughout the crisis, he has preferred to lean on the public health apparatus and the common sense of local residents — not the power of the state.
“Governor Burgum’s focus on individual responsibility has driven the administration’s decision-making since the outbreak began and is saving lives and livelihoods,” Mike Schrimpf, a spokesman for Burgum’s campaign, said in an emailed statement to Forum News Service. “His focus on common-sense guidelines and personal responsibility is why North Dakota has not had to fully shutter the economy like other states and is better positioned than most states to overcome the health, economic and fiscal impact of the pandemic.”
But now, as Burgum’s reelection campaign draws closer to Nov. 3, North Dakota has become a coronavirus hotspot. The state leads the nation in new cases per capita, according to a New York Times database. What’s more, Burgum has seen three state health officers resign since the beginning of the pandemic, the latest an employee whose tenure lasted little more than 10 days.
That all comes as the economy weathers coronavirus, too. The good news is that state finances appear to be holding firm into next year. The bad news is that oil and gas tax revenues have fallen sharply since the pandemic began. In July, average daily oil production lagged state forecasts by 28%. Prices lagged 25%. That raises serious questions about future state budgets.
In his path to another term is Democrat Shelley Lenz, a western North Dakota veterinarian who accuses Burgum’s administration of failing to properly invest in the state — in infrastructure, community resources and more, and especially in western North Dakota. She is running at the top of the state’s Democratic-NPL ticket, but in deep-red North Dakota, she’s leaning hard on the “Nonpartisan League” half of the party’s name, running on populist, kitchen-table economics. On coronavirus, she says Burgum has been woefully inadequate.
“I'm going to believe he's a good person deep down, but he's in denial of the depth of the crisis and the depth of the loss of the loved ones,” she said. “The long-term damage to the economy and the generational effects.”
Make no mistake: Burgum, an incumbent Republican, is running in a heavily Republican state and is the strong favorite to win reelection. But this version of North Dakota — financially pinched and a leader in infection — is hardly what he imagined for his first term.
Eight months and a lifetime ago, when the governor gave his State of the State address, Burgum dreamed about the future. The remote control for his slideshow symbolically arrived on stage via drone before a speech about building the workforce and diversifying the economy.
"The state of our state today is that it's strong,” Burgum said, just weeks before coronavirus would change everything. “It's growing and it's full of boundless opportunity."
Maybe not quite as much anymore. Now what?
The governor’s campaign did not make Burgum available for an interview for this article, citing a busy schedule. But Schrimpf, the Burgum campaign spokesman, said the governor has had a long list of successes the past four years, especially as Burgum has steered the state through flooding, drought, budget shortage and the like.
And on Burgum’s watch, North Dakota has certainly had its bright moments: the state has poured money into its rainy-day fund and passed the framework for big “Operation Prairie Dog” infrastructure projects. Burgum crisscrossed the state plugging his “Main Street Initiative” to build more vibrant urban centers. In annual address after address, he’s struck the pose of a forward thinker ready to modernize North Dakota.
“When I took office 19 days ago, I challenged our cabinet members to spend less time defending institutions and more time reinventing them,” Burgum said in early 2017, in remarks that he might have easily said on the eve of the pandemic. “They’re responding with enthusiasm for this quest.”
More controversially, he oversaw the state response to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests during his first months in office. And as North Dakota’s oil boom has waned, Burgum has overseen shifts in spending, with the state’s general fund spending never coming close to the glut of spending in the 2013-15 biennium.
At the start of this biennium, human services, K-12 schools and correctional funds were all near or at decade-high general fund appropriations, according to state records, but higher education is very nearly exactly where it was in the 2011-13 biennium (institutions have made up portions of that gap with increased tuition and student fee revenue).
And this coming session, the pain could be acute. Sen. Ray Holmberg, a Republican from Grand Forks and head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, sees a painful set of decisions ahead.
"It is going to be a challenge. A big challenge. And people have to be aware that there will be budget reductions,” Holmberg said. “They're going to come about. And I don't think you have found any groundswell for a tax increase."
Exactly how that’s going to play out is unclear. In May, at the height of early COVID panic, Burgum asked for agencies to cut between 5% and 15% in their budget proposals (excluding schools and Medicaid programs). But Burgum will have to hammer out the fine details next year with the Legislature, and it’s unclear how much political capital he’ll have to spend by the time January arrives.
But the central issue of the race appears to be the pandemic, Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, points out. So much of the daily life of the state is linked to quarantine, economic ripple effects and school adjustments, and he believes COVID will be a central part of voters’ logic.
"I think everything ties back to coronavirus,” Mock said.
Burgum is a favorite to win the November election. If he wins and it’s by a large margin, he’ll carry plenty of power into the coming session. If it’s narrower, his critics in the Legislature might feel far less compelled to see things his way.
And some of them are smarting over Burgum’s decision to spend significant amounts of his own money to support campaigns against members of his own party — notably to a group aligned against GOP House Appropriations Chairman Jeff Delzer, who lost his primary bid. Burgum also spent his own money in support of Thomas Beadle, who won the Republican primary race for state treasurer.
“Number one, Doug should watch his right flank beyond November. I should say that,” said Rep. Rick Becker, a Republican from Bismarck and a conservative critic of the governor. Becker takes issue not only with Burgum’s hands-on governing style, but he calls Burgum’s financial war with his own party an “elephant in the room” come next session (Becker was a donor to Beadle’s GOP primary opponent).
“Secondly, we have to put this all in context. Doug should be getting like 75% of the vote,” Becker added. “That's what would be expected for an incumbent who has no very strong opponents. The dude's been on TV for 1,000 hours a month."
Becker argues that one person to watch in all this is Michael Coachman, the perennial candidate running as a conservative write-in for governor. He’s seen by some observers as a barometer for the strength of Burgum’s mandate, in the likely case of the governor’s re-election. Enough votes for Coachman, the logic goes, and the strength of Burgum’s position against the Legislature starts to waver.
Amid speculation about Burgum’s position with the Legislature, UND political scientist Mark Jendrysik points out that the election makes for an interesting inflection point in Burgum’s career. Jendrysik, like most people watching the race, sees Burgum winning handily. But after this term, what comes next?
North Dakota Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer don’t show any signs of retiring soon, and Jendrysik points out that, with so many top seats filled, today’s North Dakota GOP resembles an earlier incarnation of the Democratic-NPL, with its top jobs unavailable.
"Not everyone is super ambitious,” Jendrysik added. "I'm sure he could stay state governor as long as he wants."