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Jacobs: Burgum ventures into unexplored political space

GRAND FORKS -- Doug Burgum is running for governor.I misread him.I thought that he wouldn't run, and said so, because I figured that smart people don't do dumb things.Burgum is a smart person.So, mine was the wrong frame. I should have remembered...

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GRAND FORKS -- Doug Burgum is running for governor.
I misread him.
I thought that he wouldn’t run, and said so, because I figured that smart people don’t do dumb things.
Burgum is a smart person.
So, mine was the wrong frame. I should have remembered that successful people take risks.
And Burgum is a successful person because he took a big risk. With his newly minted MBA from Stanford University and money from his family, he launched Great Plains Software. He sold the company to Microsoft for something more than $1 billion.
Now he’s ready to risk some of that money on a campaign for governor of North Dakota, his home state.
In some ways, it’s not a very big risk. North Dakota is one of the least expensive states in which to run a campaign. Burgum will have to spend, say, a couple of million.
The reward, though? That is the question.
Burgum might not win. Plenty of savvy observers of North Dakota believe he cannot win.
In his announcement last week, Burgum all but conceded that he can’t win the endorsement of Republicans at their state party convention. The endorsee would go on the primary ballot; Burgum will have to petition to get his name on that ballot. To do that, he must present at least 300 signatures on a petition - with the name of a candidate for lieutenant governor - to the secretary of state by April 11, less than a fortnight after the Republican convention concludes.
That’s not too great a challenge.
Winning the primary is a bigger challenge by far.
The resources of the party will be directed to the endorsed candidate. This likely will be Wayne Stenehjem, the current attorney general. Stenehjem has formidable name recognition - statewide. Burgum is well known in the Red River Valley, and his name may be a household word in Fargo.
That’s probably not enough.
Improving name identification is a big challenge that will cost money.
Another challenge is identifying voters and getting them to the polls. The Republican Party has a proven mechanism for doing this. Burgum likely does not. That means regular Republicans will be more likely to turn out. Regular here means those who back the endorsee, probably Stenehjem but whoever it turns out to be the endorsee.
This challenge is especially daunting because the primary election usually draws few voters. It’s in mid-June, after all, not a time usually associated with voting.
The rules could work in Burgum’s favor, though. North Dakota has an open primary. Anybody can vote for either party. Neither registration nor proof of party affiliation is required, although you may only vote for candidates in one party. In that sense, the primary requires straight ticket voting, except that you don’t have to vote for all of a party’s candidates. Your ballot will count so long as you don’t vote for candidates in more than one party.
Getting that across to new voters could be a challenge.
Burgum must position himself as the better choice among the candidates who may emerge.
Worth noting here: There is a third convention candidate, Rick Becker, a state representative. Last week, he got the endorsement of Rand Paul, thus burnishing his libertarian credentials and potentially increasing his appeal to so-called Tea Party Republicans.
Might he, too, decide on a primary race? This would complicate the campaign and the election outcome.
All of this plays out against a political landscape undergoing seismic change. The old home state is not the home state of 2000. Or even 2010. North Dakota has attracted new people, some to the oil fields, some to the tech-savvy cities of the Red River Valley. This makes North Dakota among the youngest states in the nation statistically - and it means a lot of people living here have never voted here before.
That means that what used to be predictable, expected or given no longer is any of those things.
We simply don’t know how these new citizens will vote, or even if they will vote. Nor do we have a very good idea of how to reach them with a campaign message.
It’s not a normal universe. Or at least, North Dakota is not the universe that it was a decade ago.
Probably Burgum is the best candidate to maneuver in this unexplored and unexpected space.
But like everything unexplored and unexpected, the risks are high.
His announcement suggests that Burgum relishes that situation and will try to capitalize on it.
My guess is that he thinks that his bet is a good one. In politics, though, the hand that throws the dice doesn’t always control them.
So, what if he wins the primary election?
Well, then he faces a potential Democratic candidate, not so big a challenge in North Dakota, perhaps.
What does he gain if if he wins the general election?
A nice title, at least. A legacy at best.
The title comes with winning. The legacy comes with work - hard work against big odds. He’ll face a Republican-controlled Legislature, in all likelihood, one that owes him nothing and may have some animosity toward him.
It’s a tough stage on which to craft a legacy.
And what if he loses the primary?
He can’t run as an independent. State law doesn’t allow a primary election loser to run for the same office in the general election.
There is one other scenario, which Burgum didn’t quite rule out. He could coast through the Republican convention, bypass the primary and run as an independent in the general - far-fetched, perhaps, but not impossible.
Especially in so topsy-turvy an election as this one has been.
Jacobs is retired as editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald, which is a part of Forum News Service. Readers can reach him at mjacobs@gfherald.com .

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