Republican contests, Burgum's political spending loom in North Dakota June primary | Govt-and-politics

Republican contests, Burgum’s political spending loom in North Dakota June primary | Govt-and-politics

North Dakota Republican voters on Tuesday will determine the outcomes of an unusual number of intraparty races against the backdrop of Gov. Doug Burgum’s hefty political spending in the election.

The June primary is key for the state’s dominant political party, which controls the Legislature and every state office and congressional seat. GOP nominees for office will advance to the November general election to face off against Democratic-NPL opponents. Democrats hold just 15% of the seats in the Legislature.

But not every Republican incumbent on the June ballot will move on. That’s because reapportionment of districts based on 2020 census data put several incumbents in the same district where there are more officeholders than seats available.

Other Republican incumbents will have to fend off challenges from newcomers, several of whom won their party longtime Republican officeholders who endorsed over petition to make the June ballot. Some House races have four or five Republican candidates competing for two slots in November.

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Ninety-eight seats in the Legislature are on the ballot this year, more than is usual due to redistricting.

Nine statewide seats are on the ballot, including attorney general, secretary of state, agriculture commissioner, tax commissioner, US Senate, US House, a seat on the state Supreme Court and two seats on the Public Service Commission. Few have primary challenges.

Nearly 49,000 absentee and mail ballots had been sent out as of late Friday afternoon, with about 33,000 returned. About 7,900 people had voted early in person as of the same time, bringing the total ballots cast to 41,000.

The June 2020 election, which was held entirely by mail due to the coronavirus pandemic, had a turnout of about 160,000, or about 27.5% of eligible voters.

Incumbent v. incumbent

The reapportionment of the Legislature last year created a few scenarios of incumbent lawmakers having to run against colleagues to try to keep a seat, though some races are the result of incumbents opting to run for the opposite chamber in which they currently serve.

Other such races could have resulted, such as for District 29 House, but several lawmakers chose to retire when their terms end Nov. 30.

At least four Republican primary races will result in incumbents not advancing to November, according to a Tribune analysis.

  • District 8 Senate (one seat): Rep. Jeff Magrum, R-Hazelton; and Rep. Dave Nehring, R-Bismarck
  • District 20 Senate (one seat): Sen. Robert Fors, R-Larimore; and Sen. Randy Lemm, R-Hillsboro
  • District 25 House (two seats): Sen. Jason Heitkamp, ​​R-Wahpeton; Rep. Cindy Schreiber-Beck, R-Wahpeton; and Rep. Kathy Skroch, R-Lidgerwood
  • District 28 Senate (one seat): Sen. Robert Erbele, R-Lehr; and Rep. Sebastian Ertelt, R-Gwinner

Intraparty challenges

There are 123 Republican and 45 Democratic-NPL candidates jostling for their party’s nomination for November. Democrats have few primary challenges.

Districts such as 8 and 33 have Republican contests for every seat and no Democratic-NPL candidates.

District 8, which encompasses Emmons County and much of Burleigh County, has two Senate candidates and four House candidates.

District 33, encompassing Mercer and Oliver counties and parts of McLean and Morton counties in the state’s coal country, has two Senate candidates and five House candidates.

In each district, only one Republican for Senate and two for House will move on to November.

Some incumbents denied the GOP endorsement at party district conventions have raised many thousands of dollars more than their challengers — including six-figure fundraising in Sen. Jessica Unruh Bell’s reelection bid for District 33 against her endorsed opponent, Keith Boehm.

The challenges also evidence the fissures in North Dakota’s supermajority party, which some political observers tie to former Rep. Luke Simons’ expulsion last year and subsequent district party censures of several Republican lawmakers. Simons was expelled for workplace and sexual harassment. He denied any wrongdoing and said he wasn’t afforded due process.

The fractures also were on display at the party’s state convention in April, when US Sen. John Hoeven, RN.D., narrowly won the GOP endorsement over Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck. Becker founded the ultraconservative Bastiat Caucus in the Legislature.

Several incumbents aligned with the Bastiat Caucus are challenging fellow Republicans for seats.

The primary election will not only be key for Republicans, but also for the direction of the 2023 Legislature after several high-profile retirements, including three of four leaders and the top Senate budget writer. New hands will guide the Legislature.

Dakota Leadership

Big-dollar donations from the wealthy governor to political group targeting ads in eight districts have cast a shadow on the primary.

Burgum has given more than $1.2 million to the Dakota Leadership PAC so far this year, after giving more than $3.2 million in 2020. Former advisers to the governor run the group.

Dakota Leadership is targeting political ads in Districts 8, 15, 19, 25, 28, 33, 35 and 39, including the state’s northeast, southeast and southwest corners, the Bismarck area and coal country.

“We believe that every North Dakotan deserves to have their voice heard at the ballot box, and we’re interested in supporting candidates who are committed to strengthening North Dakota’s economy, protecting our freedoms, reduce bureaucracy and make this the greatest state in the country to live,” Dakota Leadership Chairman Levi Bachmeier said.

Democrats and Republicans have denounced the perception of the governor attempting to buy a friendlier Legislature.

Burgum has downplayed the donations as nothing new in politics, citing previous instances of legislators and executive branch officials supporting each other in elections.

“While not involved in the day-to-day decision-making of Dakota Leadership PAC, I strongly support its mission to elect conservative Republicans who want to improve North Dakota statement,” Burgum said in a last month. “Being an elected official at the local, state, or federal level doesn’t mean giving up your ability to support the candidates you believe will do the best job for your state and country.”

A handful of House Republicans accused Burgum of violating the constitution with his hefty donations. They called on him to stop the donations. A lawsuit appears unlikely.

Becker, who is not seeking reelection, compared to Burgum’s political spending to an implied threat of “a mafia boss who’s got a hitman. The hitman goes out and breaks a few legs.”

Dakota Leadership ads have drawn attention in Districts 8 and 33, both of which reach into the Bismarck-Mandan area.

One resident of District 33 gave the Tribune 18 mail ads she had received in two weeks for the district’s Republican House and Senate primaries. Ten were from Dakota Leadership.


Republican and Democratic-NPL primary voters have few contested statewide races.

University of Jamestown engineering professor Katrina Christiansen and Fargo arts and antiques dealer Michael Steele are vying for the Democratic-NPL nomination for US Senate. The party in March endorsed Christians.

Dickinson oilfield worker Riley Kuntz is challenging Hoeven, who is seeking a third Senate term.

Republicans also will decide whether state Rep. Michael Howe of West Fargo or Bismarck business adviser Marvin Lepp will face Democrat Jeffrey Powell, of Grand Forks, for secretary of state in November.

Democrats have not won a statewide election in North Dakota since 2012, when Heidi Heitkamp narrowly beat Congressman Rick Berg for a US Senate seat.

There are no other contested statewide primary races.

Democrats lack a candidate for tax commissioner.

Voters also will be deciding city and school elections and November candidates for county and judicial races.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or