FARGO, N.D. (AP) — Hours after North Dakota Republicans put former Microsoft executive Doug Burgum on track to become governor, another grim report about oil production underscored the challenges awaiting the next leader of a once-thriving state now enduring an economic downturn.
With his resounding primary victory over longtime state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who had the GOP convention’s endorsement, Burgum will be heavily favored to win again in November in a state that hasn’t had a Democratic governor for nearly a quarter-century.
Donald Trump bucked the Republican establishment to become the presumptive presidential nominee, and Burgum — a Trump supporter — is just the latest Republican to turn business experience into political success on the state level. Govs. Rick Snyder of Michigan and Bruce Rauner of Illinois took similar paths to office in recent years.
“The voters in North Dakota made a statement which is loud,” Burgum said Wednesday. “They want to have business leaders that are from outside of the political system. That’s to me how I read it. That’s part of a national trend, and it’s a trend that wasn’t immune here in North Dakota.”
Unlike Rauner, who immediately found himself at odds with Democratic supermajorities in the Legislature after he won office in 2014, Burgum will have the luxury of working with legislators from his own party.
But like Rauner, if Burgum becomes governor, he’ll face some serious economic hurdles.
Depressed crude prices and a drop in drilling has North Dakota policymakers finally contemplating a dose of austerity — including an order by current Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple that agencies cut their budgets by 10 percent. That comes in stark contrast to the record amounts of money approved the past two legislative sessions, including $1.5 million to buy a rare mummified dinosaur and $4 million for a new governor’s mansion.
The oil report released Wednesday showed the state’s oil production decreased again, by about 70,000 barrels a day, in April — the latest month on record.
“This again is going to put further pressure on us and we are going to have to really work together as a team, both the executive branch and the Legislature, to make sure we are delivering services to North Dakota,” Burgum said. “But our potential is unlimited.”
Burgum got an MBA from Stanford and worked as a business consultant before moving back to Fargo in 1983 to buy into a company that specialized in business accounting software. Eighteen years later, Burgum sold Great Plains Software to Microsoft for $1.1 billion, then ran Microsoft’s business software division from Fargo. Since quitting in 2007, he’s been involved in other startups and restoring downtown Fargo buildings.
He infuriated the GOP-controlled Legislature with television ads that claimed lawmakers squandered the state’s oil bounty before the bust hit two years ago. He claimed he was a proven job-creator uniquely qualified to help diversify the state economy. The 59-year-old native of Arthur also has been critical of the GOP-led Legislature’s stance on social issues, including its failure to pass a bill that would have banned discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Burgum plans to take his 1974 GMC bus — held together with duct tape, bungee cords, and bailing wire — back on the highway to finish the deal against Democratic candidate Marvin Nelson of Rolla. During the primary, Burgum racked up some 16,000 miles crisscrossing the state, most of it on the bus.
Despite Burgum’s support of Trump, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider of Grand Forks said Burgum’s perceived liberal leanings on some social issues likely appealed to many Democrats, who crossed party lines to cast votes for him in the primary.
“North Dakota is changing and people are getting open to new ideas,” Schneider said. “If the majority refuses to acknowledge that, I think you’re going to see the majority change pretty quickly.”
House Majority Leader Al Carlson of Fargo and his Republican Senate counterpart, Rich Wardner of Dickinson, said lawmakers have some tough spending choices when the Legislature reconvenes in January.
“There is no question that Burgum’s allegations of runaway spending and cronyism stuck with voters and people felt they needed someone from the outside for the governor’s seat,” Wardner said. “But I’m still trying to figure out who the cronies are and the runaway spending because I disagree with that.”
Dickinson state Sen. Kelly Armstrong, who heads the state GOP, said most of his colleagues were surprised, if not shocked, by Burgum’s victory. He expects GOP lawmakers to support Burgum now, albeit grudgingly.
“Doug Burgum ran as a political outsider and worked his tail off,” Armstrong said. “Fiscal restraint plays very well with North Dakota voters, and he captured that.”
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