Heavyweights, Lightweights, and Republican Squabbles in 2020

Geez, Doug Burgum must be really pissed off at Jeff Delzer.

Burgum’s North Dakota’s Governor.

Delzer’s a State Representative from District 8, and a powerful one—chairman of the important North Dakota House of Representatives Appropriations Committee. Some say he’s the most powerful of all state Legislators. Also one of the biggest. Kind of pumpkin-shaped. A BIG pumpkin. Burgum’s built more like a skinny little street fighter. They’re about the same age. Burgum’s a few years older, but he has way more hair. And a neck.

District 8 burgum bio picDistrict 8 Delzer closeup

One would think that, given the state of disarray in North Dakota’s Democratic-NPL Party these days, Delzer, having brought home the bacon for the folks in District 8 for more than 25 years, shouldn’t have to worry about his re-election chances this year. Well, it turns out it’s not the Democrats Jeff has to worry about–it’s his own Republican Party that’s giving him a problem.

Because those ungrateful District 8 Republicans, at their nominating convention this winter, kicked him off their 2020 ticket. Instead, they endorsed a couple of newcomers, David Andahl and Dave Nehring.

Now that’s an unusual thing to happen, but it’s not a difficult thing to pull off. Party endorsements for the Legislature are made by those who show up at the district convention. Obviously, Nehring and Andahl went out and got all their friends to show up at the convention, catching an unsuspecting Delzer off guard. I’m guessing no one was more surprised walking out of the convention than Delzer. I mean, WTF?

I’ve seen it happen over the years that I was involved in politics. Way back in 1992, when Bud Sinner was stepping down as Governor, Attorney General Nick Spaeth appeared to be the anointed one to succeed him. He even had Sinner’s tacit endorsement. They had come into office together in 1984, both upsetting incumbent Republicans, and were close confidants during their eight years across the hall from each other.

But State Senator Bill Heigaard was the choice of young liberals in the party, and, feeling their oats, they went district to district and took over conventions and in a major upset,  threw the party’s endorsement to Heigaard at the 1992 state convention. Spaeth, however, with wide approval and way more name recognition than the little-known State Senator from Langdon, went to the Primary Election in June, defeated Heigaard, and then got trounced in November by Ed Schafer, an election which brought the beginning of nearly 30 years, now, of Republican dominance in North Dakota politics.

That can happen when a party gets divided. North Dakota Republicans, who have quite a few internal squabbles going on right now,  would do well to remember that. Democrats had a long run in state government, holding the Governor’s office and most statewide offices for more than 30 years, well through the end of the century. The beginning of the end of that run came in that 1992 Governor’s race.

More recently, now-State Senator Erin Oban of Bismarck’s District 35 brought a slug of her friends to the district convention in 2014 and swiped the endorsement from former Senator Tracy Potter, who had left his Senate seat four years earlier to run against John Hoeven for the U.S. Senate. Now, Potter could have run against Oban in the Primary Election, and probably won, but he believed in the system, so he decided not to challenge Oban, instead accepting the district’s endorsement for the House of Representatives, and losing in the fall election by just a couple hundred votes. Oban won the Senate race against the hapless Margaret Sitte, and has become an outstanding Legislator, a party leader, and maybe the state’s first female governor someday.

But back to matters at hand. Andahl and Nehring are District 8’s endorsed Republican candidates. They sought the endorsement as a team, and they’re campaigning as a team. Delzer is challenging them in the Primary. He’d be a good bet to beat one of them, which could make for an uncomfortable situation going into the fall General Election.

But Nehring and Andahl appear to have big timber on their side: Doug Burgum. Burgum’s darned popular with North Dakota Republicans. And while I haven’t seen an open endorsement of the two yet, here’s what I know.

A friend of mine shared with me a couple of campaign flyers that have been mailed to Republicans in District 8, promoting the candidacy of Nehring and Andahl. My friend said that he thinks there have been five separate mailings. Andahl has a picture of President Trump on at least one of his flyers. Nehring has Trump AND Burgum. Both have the word ENDORSED in big type. Somebody is spending a lot of money to get these two guys through the primary, which is just a month away now.

District 8 Burgum and TrumpDistrict 8 Andahl-Mailer

That somebody is likely Doug Burgum. The disclaimer on the flyers says “Paid for by Dakota Leadership PAC, Cam Knutson, Secretary.” I had never heard of the Dakota Leadership PAC, and I don’t know Cam Knutson, but I recall he has ties to Burgum back at Burgum’s real estate and development  firm in Fargo.

A quick look at the PAC’s Bizapedia registration form shows its mailing address is Box 2945, Fargo, ND, 58108, and that its registered agent is Robbie Lauf. Robbie Lauf was a principal on Burgum’s 2016 campaign for Governor and became Burgum’s senior policy advisor when he became Governor. I think he’s left the Governor’s staff. Online, he shows a Fargo address. He’s also a member of the Board of Trustees of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library, one of Burgum’s pet projects. It’s no secret that Delzer was a pretty vocal opponent of the Governor’s $50 million proposal to help fund the Library project, voting against it in the 2019 Legislative session.

What I know is, Lauf stops by the post office to get his Dakota Leadership PAC mail at the same P.O. Box as the Burgum for Governor Campaign gets theirs–Box  2945 in Fargo. That’s the mailing address listed for the campaign on the ND Secretary of State’s website anyway (just click on “Contest,” then “Governor,” then “Search”).  It was also on the Burgum campaign’s website when I looked the other day, but it seems to be gone now.

I don’t know if Robbie is back on the campaign staff.  Maybe one of my Republican friends will tell me.  Levi Bachmeier, who also came from the 2016 Burgum campaign into the Governor’s office, although he’s left there for a job in education in Fargo these days, was listed as the Treasurer of the Dakota  Leadership PAC,.

So we’ve got a bunch of these young Republican political junkies (not that there’s anything wrong with that) with close ties to Doug Burgum spending a bunch of somebody’s money cranking out mailers to try to unseat the powerful House Appropriations Committee chairman, one of the senior Legislators in their own party.

Why?

Go back to December of 2018. After Burgum and his staff spent much of the year, as North Dakota’s executive branch officials do every even-numbered year, crafting a budget for North Dakota’s state government to present to the 2019 Legislature, Delzer and Sen. Ray Holmberg, Delzer’s counterpart in the State Senate, told  Burgum to take a hike, saying they didn’t want his budget, they were going to write their own.

Generally, over the years, the Governor has written a budget and presented it as series of bills for the Legislature to act on. No more. Literally the night before Burgum was going to give his traditional budget address to the Legislature in December of 2018, Delzer and Holmberg announced that his budget would not be introduced in the Legislature, a huge slap in the face of the Governor.

In a story in the Bismarck Tribune, the Governor later criticized the Legislative  rule change, saying, “We handed over the budget, and that budget is — I don’t want to say tossed in the garbage, but that’s how it felt.”

So it looks to me like there’s a little revenge play at work here. I don’t know for sure that Burgum’s putting up the money for the Dakota Leadership PAC, but I should know in a few days, because I think there’s a Pre-Primary Report that has to be filed this Friday with the Secretary of State. It takes Al Jaeger a while to get those up on his website, but it will be there eventually, I think. But I can pretty much guess whose name will be on the list.

Meanwhile, maybe some good news reporter will stake out Box 2945 in Fargo some morning and see who goes to get the mail there, and where they take it to—see if it all goes to the same office. It’s all kind of goofy. You’d think if the Governor wanted to keep his involvement in a local Legislative race to unseat one of his own senior party members a secret, he might have gotten a different post office box. Or maybe he just didn’t care about that.

District 8 endorsed logo
The District 8 Republican Party Seal of Approval graces the campaign literature of Dave Nehring and David Andahl, but not of Rep. Jeff Delzer.

4 thoughts on “Heavyweights, Lightweights, and Republican Squabbles in 2020

  1. Well done, Jim. You are quite the investigator! Love your blogs that inform us about the inside politics around the state.

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  2. This is fantastic, Jim.

    I selfishly enjoyed your 1992 D-NPL primary retelling — that’d be a great post someday (or I’d just listen to you and someone like Mike Jacobs talking about it for an hour). I know you touched on it in 2018, but it’s such a curious story, particularly when you compare Spaeth’s 1984 campaign for Atty Gen to his 1992 campaign for governor (I’ve read those two back through the papers of Bob Wefald in Bismarck and Rosemarie Myrdal in Grand Forks, respectively, but D-NPL voices are pretty quiet on it).

    I know you and others have been pretty critical of Spaeth (thinking of the comments on “Of Conventions and Things” in 2016), but it’d be interesting to hear how, with two rising stars like Vogel and Heitkamp (to say nothing of Team North Dakota in Congress post-1992), some of the sides taken in ’92–including John Schneider stepping aside for Pomeroy–might’ve affected the party.

    Curious to see how this current episode develops, as well. Great reporting!

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  3. Thank you for an interesting column. I believe Governor Burgum’s actions are often driven by self-interest, and one of those is having his name imbedded on the Theodore Roosevelt Library. I would rather see his name engraved on two huge billboards titled Burgum Ditch. (I would like to see the Fargo Diversion re-named the Burgum Ditch.) Place the signs on the I-29 and I-94 bridges that will be built over the B.D.

    If you have written any columns about the Fargo Diversion or Red River Water Supply projects, could you please direct me to them? BTW, I oppose the Fargo Diversion because;

    1. It is a bail-out for a steady history of bad zoning decisions. 2. It enables continuation of bad zoning decisions. 3. It will destroy thousands of acres of prime farmland and degrade thousands more, with endless claims for crop damage to be paid by taxpayers – directly or perhaps through Federal crop insurance subsidies.

    If Burgum wants to support small-town North Dakota, he should support free enterprise directing growth to a town where there isn’t a flood hazard and water shortage; water shortage meaning there is not a reliable supply of water big enough for over-watering Fargo lawns and accommodating more prime farmland floodplain urbanization. For example, the city of Leonard is 39 miles southwest of Fargo, has abundant groundwater, and is very sandy – not prime farmland. Of course, steering development to someplace like Leonard would reduce the need for the Red River Water Supply Project, another multi-billion dollar boondoggle enabled by bi-partisan support.

    I was told that R D Offut, Ed Schaefer and Doug Burgum have invested substantially in farmland that would be protected by the Fargo Diversion, obviously with the intent to profit from urbanizing it. Very disgusting, if true.

    Mark A. Anderson

    701-516-4235

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