MINOT, N.D. — It can be hard to see through the cloud of anxiety and consternation that is the COVID-19 pandemic, but the 2020 campaign season is upon us, and interesting things are happening.
Perhaps most interesting in the cycle so far is Gov. Doug Burgum's aggressive moves to influence outcomes on the June primary ballot, which feature several Republican versus Republican races for state and local offices.
Burgum has intervened in the treasurer race, choosing state Rep. Tom Beadle of Fargo over state Rep. Dan Johnston of Kathryn (who has been endorsed by U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, outgoing Treasurer Kelly Schmidt, and Auditor Josh Gallion).
The Dakota Leadership PAC is spending money in those races. They're paying for mailers for their preferred candidates, for instance.
Burgum's people lead that political committee. Robbie Lauf advised the governor's campaign in 2016. Levi Bachmeier's day job was serving as the governor's policy director, though these days he's working for the West Fargo school district. They are the PAC's organizers.
There is nothing wrong with Burgum interceding in these races. Politicians often build alliances based on money and endorsements to bolster the campaigns of people they believe will help their agenda.
That's how the sausage gets made. Also, many of these lawmakers, though fellow Republicans, have been a thorn in Burgum's side. The District 8 race, specifically, features longtime lawmaker and influential budgeter Rep. Jeff Delzer.
The guy who, last legislative session, orchestrated a rule change to try and sideline Burgum's executive budget.
The governor wants some payback.
How Burgum is going about it, however, is surprisingly ham-fisted.
For one thing, throwing big buckets of money into local races will inevitably invite a lot of blowback, particularly when the competition influenced is intra-Republican.
It would be one thing for Burgum to dump money into a local Republican campaign to defeat a Democrat. That's accepted practice for both parties.
Doing it to defeat other Republicans? Especially incumbent Republicans, as is the case in a couple of these districts?
That's going to make you a lot of enemies.
Burgum might have been better off with a more subtle approach.
Also problematic is the provenance of the Dakota Leadership PAC's money.
It's not very, uh, Dakota-ish.
According to the latest disclosures to the Secretary of State's office, as of May 8, this PAC has raised $414,000.
Of that total, Burgum has contributed $195,000.
The rest (outside of $100 in unreported small donations) has been large contributions, most of which - over 76% - came from people with addresses outside of North Dakota.
Here's a spreadsheet I created based on data from state disclosures:
To be fair, some of the folks with the out-of-state addresses do have ties to North Dakota.
Robert Challey, for instance, may live in California, but he is a graduate of North Dakota State University and has been very active in supporting that school for decades. He was also Burgum's choice to serve as North Dakota's representative on the Kennedy Center Advisory Board.
But it's hard to imagine why Challey would be interested in influencing North Dakota's legislative races.
It's even less clear why someone like Miles White is interested in hyper-local North Dakota politics. He's from Illinois. He's the chairman of the board of Abbot, a global health care company. His connection to North Dakota seems opaque, except for one area.
His company is doing a lot of business with the state of North Dakota. They're a vendor for medical supplies. Particularly testing supplies for the COVID-19 epidemic, a line item which people in state government with knowledge of the situation tell me has already run into the millions (though it's unclear how much of that has gone to Abbot).
What is it about the District 8 race here in North Dakota that is worth $50,000 to Mr. White?
"Governor Burgum has had a very successful business career and in that time he has built a pretty incredible network of individuals who want to enthusiastically support him and his vision for North Dakota," Lauf told me when I asked about all the out-of-state money. "Those individuals have followed him in investing in his vision. This is something that has been clear from 2016. We have conveyed that our agenda is supporting the Governor's agenda. People want to support his agenda in the state of North Dakota."
And what about White, specifically? "We have no involvement with the state, so that's not something we would know or connect the dots on," Lauf said. "These are relationships that are long-term. I hesitate to comment on that specifically because I don't know the details, but that's certainly not a factor for us."
I'm not suggesting anything necessarily untoward is happening with White's contribution. Every state in the union is testing like crazy for the COVID-19 virus. White doesn't need to make a political contribution for his company to move product right now.
But the optics of someone like White spending big money -- and $50k in a legislative race is big, big money -- to influence local politics in North Dakota is not great even beyond his company's status as a significant vendor.
Heck, the optics of Burgum himself spending nearly $200,000 of his fortune to defeat other Republicans probably isn't great.
I understand what Burgum is trying to do. In many ways, I support it. Competition is a healthy thing for the NDGOP.
I'm just surprised that he's doing it this way.
Lauf told me the PAC will be involved in primary races in District 8, District 12, District 20, District 28, District 34, District 36 and the treasurer's race.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at email@example.com.
This article has been updated to correct the positions of Robbie Lauf and Levi Bachmeier.