Doug Burgum has contributed $195,000 to a political action committee called Dakota Leadership PAC. The PAC was registered with the Secretary of State on February 19th. Two former Burgum aides are heading the committee according to reports. The large donation from the Republican Governor and the GOP political in-fighting has led to great speculation in 2020.

The new, somewhat mysterious, PAC had received $209,000 from sixteen donors prior to the pre-primary filing deadline. Eleven of those donors were from out-of-state. For example, $47,500 came from residents in California. Following that deadline, the PAC received an additional $205,000. Doug Burgum accounted for $195,000 of that total. Overall, $414,000 raised according to Secretary of State filings, and no doubt they’re just getting started for the general election.

So what’s the big deal? Aside from gray areas of coordination between Burgum’s reelection campaign and the PAC, this is common practice. You might not like it, but PACs are a big part of American politics. In North Dakota, elections are still relatively cheap. This money, if targeted correctly, can go a long way.

Political Tensions in GOP

Let’s discuss where the PAC may be focused. Recall, Doug Burgum’s 2016 campaign focused on breaking up the “good old boys” network. He accused that network of bad budgeting and called for term-limits. Many of those “old boys” took it personally and are still angry about that campaign. Their guy was Wayne Stenehjem. It has caused increased friction between the executive and legislative branches in Bismarck.

There have been lawsuits between the Republican Governor and Republican Legislature. The Attorney General declared Burgum overstepped his authority in the 2017 legislative session. Lawmakers wanted answers to Burgum and Sanford’s use of tax dollars. Republican appropriators in the House shouted at Burgum and changed the rules of how the Governor has his budget introduced to the Legislature. It hasn’t been pretty.

That anger was amplified by the 2018 defeat of then-House Majority Leader Al Carlson. Carlson acted like a king in the Legislature. Many GOP House members didn’t dare make a decision without running it by him first. That fear delayed the legislative process, led to poor decisions, and ultimately cost taxpayers money. At the beginning of every session, GOP members whispered that someone would get the courage to take on Carlson for leadership. Every time, they chickened out until the voters ultimately decided to throw him out.

Who would take Carlson’s place? Mike Nathe’s name always came up for the role. Ultimately, Chet Pollert was voted in as leader. The rumor was Pollert made a deal with House Appropriations Chair Jeff Delzer that he’d be allowed to stay in that position if he was elected. Pollert won. Delzer remained Appropriations Chair. Delzer, furious that Carlson lost, continued the fight with Burgum.

Dakota Leadership PAC

Why do you care about the political in-fighting? Because it is the rumored reason behind the Dakota Leadership PAC. Just like every session “moderate” GOP members whispered about taking on Carlson for leadership, every election cycle “moderate” GOP supporters whispered about getting rid of extreme right-wing candidates. They’d encourage Democrats with nothing more than words then sit back and watch as the person they didn’t like from their own party won elections. After all, it wasn’t that they necessarily wanted a Democrat winning.

The first political target appears to be the primary defeat of Jeff Delzer. Delzer lost at his district’s convention. He is continuing through the June 9th Primary election. Many candidates have simply forgone their conventions and have had success in NDGOP politics. Yet, splashy television ads are flooding the Bismarck/Mandan market for Delzer’s opponents. Removing Delzer from the Legislature would make it easier for Burgum’s administration to push their agenda.

It is tough to imagine the $414,000 reported to-date will be entirely used in district 8’s primary race. Where else could it be used? There is a Treasurer’s race between Thomas Beadle and Daniel Johnston. One is moderate, the other an extreme right-winger. Guess which one has the endorsement of Burgum? Beadle the moderate.

Electoral Impact

There has always been discussion in GOP circles about defeating some of their own extreme members at the ballot box. Simply put, Democrats haven’t been able to get it done electorally. Some of that is their own doing. Some of it beyond their control in this political climate. Rather than the useless whispered encouragement from moderate GOP, it looks like Burgum finally decided to do something about it. Putting his money along with his wealthy friends to work.

If you want a legislature full of Johnstons, Ertelts, Marschalls, Magrums, McWilliams, Simons, Skrochs, Clemens, and Mydrals, this is a PAC you’re going to be watching closely and likely point to the out-of-state money funding it. Expect these individuals and supporters to claim Burgum is trying to buy the Legislature just like he bought the Governor’s office. If you want a legislature with people more moderately-aligned, this is a PAC you’re going to be watching closely and likely point to agenda-driven investments.

What will be interesting is to see whether or not this PAC gets involved in any of the partisan legislative races this November. It isn’t any secret there are sitting GOP lawmakers more moderate individuals would like to defeat. See the previous paragraph to name a few. Would this PAC actually put money behind partisan opponents? Yet to be determined, but I certainly wouldn’t hold my breath.

Behind closed doors shouting matches spilled into the legislative chambers. Now, whispered plotting has spilled into the electoral process. This fight will shape GOP politics in 2020. The winner will ultimately decide what the state does with a gloomy budget outlook in 2021 and beyond.

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