Probably no point in reading on, since I was not just wrong, but dramatically wrong in my prediction about this election. I thought Wayne Stenehjem would coast in with ease. He lost in a stunning upset. How did this happen?
Here’s my analysis, for what little it is worth. 2016 has become the year we throw the rascals out. It’s the year of the outsider. Thus Jeb Bush found no traction in the Republican primaries, in spite of the fact that he was backed by vast millions of dollars and many of the most powerful Republican insiders in the United States. Outsider Bernie Sanders came close to displacing the unbeatable Clinton machine. The Democratic electorate is lukewarm (to put it lightly) about Mrs. Clinton. Her insider status may hurt her significantly in the November election, even if her opponent is a disgrace. Donald Trump is the ultimate outsider: brash, bombastic, reckless, vulgar, mean-spirited, bigoted, and simplistic, but somehow he tapped into the deep and wide anger in the country. His campaign strategy has had a kind of twisted genius to it. I admire him: he knew there was only one path to the nomination and Presidency, and it was not by being a reasonable centrist who played by the usual rules.
The national mood–angry, unsettled, indiscriminate–propelled Doug Burgum into the governorship, assuming he wins handily in November. Don’t get me wrong: he’s a very remarkable man. He’s smart, thoughtful, innovative, clever, and he has done great things in the Red River Valley. He has won the coveted Roughrider Award. His stature in national circles is bigger than his fame, until now, in North Dakota. He is someone I greatly respect. But his surprise victory owes more to the ugly mood of the electorate than to his very clear merits.
He ran an extremely intelligent campaign. He figured out what he would need to do to win the nomination, and he did it with a discipline and focus that have paid off handsomely for him. He spent a lot of money, too. His television spots, whatever you think of their content or their truthfulness, were very well produced. One felt a kind of confidence in him. He looked like the Steve Jobs of North Dakota. He looks like someone who knows how to make payroll, think through a problem, get things done. He looks like a man who gets usually what he wants. He looks like a candidate for the 21st century, for the age of social media, for a new era in North Dakota history.
My friend Wayne Stenehjem ran a solid campaign, but perhaps not a very inspired one. Most North Dakotans reckoned he was headed to an automatic coronation. that it was his turn to be Governor. If he had started as the underdog instead, he might have fashioned his campaign in a more effective way. He had every reason to believe that he would be rewarded for decades of committed public service to the people of North Dakota. In my opinion, he deserved better of a party to which he has given his life and career. It’s a little hard to understand why he was rejected, but his solace is that the dynamics that defeated him have more to do with the national mood and the Trump phenomenon than with any real or perceived limitations of his leadership capacity or his record in office.
This is the year of Donald Trump. This is the year of the Outsider.
I think it would be hard to exaggerate the effect that former Governor Ed Schafer had on the election. He has very strong populist appeal, and a reputation for speaking his mind and not merely following the party line. People trust his judgment. He has a kind of automatic credibility with hundreds of thousands of North Dakotans. I believe that thousands of North Dakotans who did not quite know what to make of the Burgum insurgency decided to vote for him on the strength of Schafer’s strong endorsement. Just why Schafer chose to endorse Burgum is not altogether clear. Best to take him at his word–that he thinks Burgum is the worthier candidate.
It would be an understatement to say that Burgum upset a lot of establishment Republicans on his way to the nomination. But he will probably be able to repair whatever tensions he roused. He has been a generous supporter of the Republican party and Republican candidates. He has literally reshaped the city of Fargo. There is nothing like success to bring people on board, as Donald Trump has shown with astonishing effectiveness.
Here’s what bothers me. I have been a deep admirer of Doug Burgum from the time I moved back to North Dakota ten years ago. But I don’t like the way he has treated Wayne Stenehjem in the last six months. Wayne is a man of great integrity. He is smart, decent, witty, generous, and eminently likable. He’s one of the best public speakers in the state. He has been an excellent Attorney General. He takes great pride in the ways he addressed the meth problem of the 1990s and early 200os, and the leadership he showed in bring relief to Mandan after the serious rail spill. His Special Places initiative–to select a few very extraordinary places in the western half of the state and protect them as much as possible as the energy boom continues–represented a political risk that he did not have to take, and one that I believe helped to defeat him earlier this week. Conservatives who believe that property rights are the only good were upset by Stenehjem’s proposal that we should tiptoe around places of stunning beauty or environmental fragility, especially when they are on our public lands. Stenehjem undertook the Special Places initiative because he believes strongly that we should not let money be the only criterion of public energy policy. I applaud that. Leadership is doing the right thing even when it is not politically advantageous.
Wayne Stenehjem has served this state well. His family has served this state well. I don’t think the charge of cronyism is even slightly fair. Nor is there anything intrinsically wrong with being a “career politician.” A career in public service is precisely what Theodore Roosevelt advocated for people who have the talent and a strong command of government processes. Burgum’s political ruthlessness, and his willingness to say and do whatever it took to win the nomination, leaves a bad taste in my mouth. (Can he really think Trump is the right man to be the President of the United States?) I believe he is, at heart, a moderate progressive, free from any claustrophobic political ideology, and a civic leader for whom the usual nonsense of politics is distasteful. I wanted more from him: to focus the campaign on higher values, to pursue a more positive drive to the Governorship, to treat his opponent with greater respect, to hold the truth in higher regard, and to avoid positions I believe he does not actually hold just for the sake of pandering to the under-the-radar rage of the electorate. I hope he moves back towards his characteristic elegance and integrity as he glides to victory in the fall. If so, he may be one of the great Governors in North Dakota history. But he has some serious work to do to restore his stature as one of the most interesting and thoughtful of all North Dakotans.
In the end, I don’t think it was Burgum who betrayed Stenehjem as much as the Republican voters of North Dakota. They should have seen through those parts of Burgum’s campaign that were merely opportunistic. And yet I don’t really blame them. I think Donald Trump has turned American politics upside down in the past 15 months, and made “throw the establishment out” a slapdash solution to a problem that is infinitely more complex.