McFeely: A Stenehjem loss would be epic ND flop

FARGO -- If Wayne Stenehjem loses to Doug Burgum, it will go down as the biggest political collapse in North Dakota history.Epic fail, as the kids say.It would also be another right cross to the chin of the North Dakota Republican Party establish...

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FARGO -- If Wayne Stenehjem loses to Doug Burgum, it will go down as the biggest political collapse in North Dakota history.
Epic fail, as the kids say.
It would also be another right cross to the chin of the North Dakota Republican Party establishment, in which Stenehjem and his supporters are firmly entrenched. First Rick Berg loses to Democrat Heidi Heitkamp for a U.S. Senate seat, then Kevin Cramer runs an end-around to crush party-endorsed Brian Kalk in a GOP primary and now a very popular attorney general could lose to a political novice? Kind of makes you wonder what might happen if the Democratic Party wasn’t so impotent in North Dakota.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Stenehjem still must be considered the favorite going into the Tuesday, June 14, primary election. He is the sitting attorney general who’s won his last two statewide races with nearly 75 percent of the vote. Of his last four attorney general elections, Stenehjem’s worst showing is 69 percent. His name recognition is nearly universal.
And in the only public statewide poll on the race, conducted way back in February, he tallied a 59-10 advantage over Burgum. Thirty-one percent declared themselves undecided in that poll.
That’s where “epic fail” comes in. If Stenehjem somehow finds a way to lose Tuesday, it means he blew a 49-point lead to a person whose name recognition was nearly zero outside of Cass County when the race began.
Heck, even if Burgum loses by less than 10 points it’s quite a story. The Fargo entrepreneur made the party machine’s candidate sweat, and sweat quite a lot.
The Stenehjem camp will tell you it’s all about the money. Burgum has poured millions of dollars into his campaign. There’s no question that makes a difference, perhaps all the difference, in politics. There are untold numbers of candidates with noble intentions and great messages who didn’t have a dime. All they walked away with after Election Day was noble intentions and great messages. Burgum has purchased his way to political relevancy, no doubt.
There’s more to Burgum’s surge than that, though. While Stenehjem and his supporters spent their time complaining about Burgum’s money, they ran a limp campaign during which they were always on the defensive. Burgum was always the more energized, aggressive and organized candidate. Burgum’s strategy was brilliant for a massive underdog. Stenehjem and his surrogates spent months responding to Burgum, and the response was usually whining.
If Stenehjem wasn’t talking about his opponent’s money, he was griping about Burgum’s “negative” campaigning or “misleading” advertisements.
Negative campaign? Misleading ads? Um, that’s called politics in a competitive environment. North Dakota Republicans probably forgot what that’s like given the political atmosphere in the state, but they need only look across the Red River to Minnesota to get a reminder. Minnesota Republicans spent their time questioning Mark Dayton’s mental health the first time he ran for governor. That’s just slightly more mean-spirited than Burgum calling Stenehjem a career politician.
Stenehjem’s strongest response was to hit Burgum on angel funds and renaissance zones, two obscure investment programs the average voter knows and cares nothing about.
You have to wonder if the Republican establishment can take a punch. Berg vanished in 2012 when Heitkamp’s campaign threw a couple of haymakers, and now Stenehjem’s team seemed staggered by Burgum’s aggressiveness. Did they expect Doug to sit by the campfire and roast marshmallows with Wayne?
All that said, the advantage is still with Stenehjem. Burgum will probably have to win Cass County by a massive margin, maybe 60-40 or more, to have a shot. And he’ll probably need a big voter turnout in the county. Burleigh County, where Bismarck is located, could go strong for Stenehjem and offset much of Burgum’s advantage in Cass County.
It’s been a fascinating race. We’ve learned that unlimited campaign spending can have a major impact, even when the candidate doing the spending is basically starting from scratch against an entrenched near-incumbent. We’ve learned the North Dakota Republican establishment doesn’t particularly like it when an opponent gets aggressive, nor does it quite know how to return fire.
Regardless of how this turns out, it’s been fun to see the GOP machine squirm a little bit. North Dakota’s political landscape has been a stultifying, one-party system seemingly forever. A sense of entitlement runs deep.
If Burgum pulls the upset, it’d be a victory for the ages. It’d also be a defeat of epic proportions for Stenehjem, who’d be left to answer how he blew a 49-point lead.
McFeely is a columnist and radio talk show host for Forum News Service. Email him at .

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