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Port: Has Burgum done more harm than good in North Dakota's primaries?

Has Gov. Doug Burgum helped promote his preferred candidates? Or just created headlines that obscured their campaigns?

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North Dakota Rep. Bill Tveit, R-Hazen, said he has recently received 18 politcal mailers in support of his Republican challengers, Mark Pierce and Anna Novak. The mailers were paid for by Dakota Leadership PAC, a secretive political committee funded entirely by Republican Gov. Doug Burgum.
Contributed / Bill Tveit
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MINOT, N.D. — Tuesday, June 14, is primary day in North Dakota, and in a normal political environment, it would mark the beginning of the election cycle in earnest.

Only, we live in North Dakota, and the Democratic-NPL is irrelevant, and the primary vote choosing the Republican candidates is the end of all meaningful competition.

Democratic and Republican candidates will advance to the November ballot, but many of the Republicans in legislative and even statewide races will campaign unopposed. Even where there are Democratic challengers, most of them don't have a chance.

But there is plenty of competition in the Republican primaries, particularly in a number of legislative races across the state, but what most North Dakotans know about those races is the independent spending in them.

Gov. Doug Burgum has poured a mountain of his own money into messaging supportive of his preferred slate of legislative candidates. Another committee, the Brighter Future Alliance, has also made expenditures supporting/opposing candidates along those same lines, though North Dakota's too-loose campaign finance reporting laws prevent us from knowing where that money is coming from.

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This, I think, is a problem.

It obscures the very candidates it's intended to help.

Sen. Jessica Bell, in District 33, helped save thousands and thousands of jobs for her constituents with her heroic work to keep Coal Creek Station open. Sean Cleary, who is running for the state Senate in District 35, is a promising newcomer with an impressive resume. Yet most of these headlines about these races have been about the mailers.

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This, in turn, creates a sense of martyrdom for the candidates opposed by the mailers.

Rep. Jeff Magrum, who is now seeking a Senate seat in District 8, is a neanderthal with a documented history of trying to intimidate his fellow lawmakers . But instead of focusing on Magrum's manifest problems, which ought to disqualify him from serious consideration for public office, we're watching him hold news conferences, playing the victim while waving mailers in the air.

If you've managed to create even a modicum of sympathy for an angry bully like Magrum, you're doing it wrong.

I've argued that there's nothing ethically wrong with what Burgum or Brighter Future are doing (though I'm very much in favor of more reporting requirements to bring transparency to these endeavors).

Tactically, however, I think they've made a mistake.

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Send the mailers and run the ads, sure. But someone, like Burgum himself, should also be explaining to voters why their mailboxes are getting carpet-bombed. He should be behind a podium talking about why he's supporting certain candidates and opposing others.

It's a compelling story to tell, because most of the candidates he's opposing are obnoxiously unserious lawmakers, while the people he's supporting are thoughtful and independent.

I'd love to hear Burgum talk about why he's supporting, say, Sen. Bell, despite how often she's been a pain in his neck.

But Burgum isn't doing that.

His people aren't doing that.

Instead, they've left a vacuum behind their marketing, and that undermines the whole thing.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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