BISMARCK — Over the last two weeks, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum more than doubled the amount of money he has contributed to a political committee that is targeting several competitive Republican primary races.
In all, the first-term Republican and former tech mogul has given $1.85 million to the newly formed Dakota Leadership PAC since the beginning of May.
The committee has paid for negative ads against powerful state House Appropriations Chairman Jeff Delzer, R-Underwood, and promotional ads in support of his intra-party challengers, David Andahl and Dave Nehring. The committee has also gotten involved in five other state legislative races and backed Fargo Rep. Thomas Beadle's run for state treasurer against fellow Republican Rep. Dan Johnston.
Robbie Lauf, a former Burgum advisor who is in charge of the well-funded committee, said in an email it was formed to "help elect conservative Republicans who share the governor's vision to strengthen the economy, improve our Main Streets and embrace legacy investments in North Dakota’s future."
Delzer and other legislative leaders have called Burgum's financial maneuver unethical and said the governor is trying to erode the separation of powers.
Burgum rebutted Delzer's characterization Friday, June 5, saying that public officeholders have crossed branches of government to endorse certain candidates since the early days of American politics.
The governor said of his spending in the primary races that "competition is a good thing" and his spending is leveling the playing field for candidates like Andahl and Nehring who do not have the built-in advantage of incumbency. He also noted that Beadle is fighting an uphill battle in the treasurer's race after President Donald Trump endorsed his opponent in a tweet last month, however the committee supported Beadle with promotional advertising weeks before Johnston got the nod from the White House.
Burgum did not commit to backing all Republicans who win the primary next week, opening up the possibility that the committee could support Democratic candidates in the November general election. He added that the committee will be active in North Dakota elections for years to come.
For Stacy Montemayor, a researcher at the National Institute on Money in Politics, Burgum's sizable investment in state politics is a political calculation. In North Dakota, a state without legal limits on contributions, a wealthy politician like Burgum can weigh the benefits of a potentially big win for his political agenda in the June 9 primaries with the "bad look" of appearing to influence electoral outcomes, she said.
Montemayor and the institute's research director, Pete Quist, note that Burgum is not the first governor to make a play to consolidate power with large donations. Former Republican Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and Ken Griffin, a friend and billionaire hedge fund manager, combined to spend an eight-figure sum in 2016. However, the contributions mostly went to support Republicans running against Democrats, rather than intra-party contests.
The 'old guard'
Burgum has never publicly expressed that he would like to unseat Delzer, but there has been friction between the two politicians in the past over a rule change in the budgeting process and funding for the proposed Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library.
The committee, which derives nearly 90% of funds from Burgum, has supported locally endorsed Republicans Andahl and Nehring for about a month in their efforts to beat Delzer in his rural district north of Bismarck. However, the arrival of negative multimedia ads and mailings targeting Delzer is a new development.
Two mailings paid for by the committee that have been sent to voters say "Jeff Delzer lost his way" during his nearly 30-year tenure in the Legislature. One mailing attributes a quote to Forum columnist Rob Port about Delzer representing the "old guard in North Dakota politics," but inaccurately refers to Port as a "politics reporter"
Other ads have said Delzer is not a true conservative and opposes term limits — claims he denies. Delzer voted for a 2017 resolution that suggests federal officials and members of the U.S. Congress should have term limits. He also noted that North Dakota lawmakers don't have the authority to make those rules anyway.
Former Republican Gov. Ed Schafer opined on his Facebook page Monday that Delzer "has always been a solid conservative voice within the Legislature," and Schafer said he was upset by "the lies that are being told about" Delzer.
Delzer said it's "disappointing" to see the governor's money going toward a negative ad campaign against him, but he said he would try to prove false as many claims as possible in the lead-up to election day.
'Behind on some bills'
The committee has also paid for negative ads against Johnston, the candidate for treasurer. Two mailings feature Johnston's head superimposed onto the body of a man caught under a cartoon mousetrap.
One mailing claims Johnston didn't pay his own taxes or bills and that he should be kept "away from North Dakota's finances." Johnston said the tax-dodging allegation refers to a $149 tax lien from 2011 that was originally sent to the wrong address and then paid off.
Johnston said the charge that he didn't pay his bills mostly refers to when he lost his job years ago and "fell behind on some bills." However, court documents show that Johnston and his wife were ordered to repay debts to a private collector as recently as 2018.
Burgum said the advertising run by the committee is sharing the positive and negative parts of candidates' records and that the claims made are true. He also said the rise of social media has muddied political discourse with all kinds of false claims about candidates, and the committee's "fact-based" advertising is counteracting that effect to some degree.
Though it refers to itself as a "political action committee," Dakota Leadership is classified as a multi-candidate committee under North Dakota law. The distinction means the committee doesn't legally have to report exactly where or how it spends funds. Burgum said the committee is conducting business in the "clear and open," but when asked if it would voluntarily release details of its expenditures, the governor said there were no plans to do so.