Burgum faces voters; lawmakers seek control on amendments
By JAMES MacPHERSON Associated Press
BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — President Donald Trump and Gov. Doug Burgum are hoping for lopsided victories Tuesday in traditionally Republican North Dakota. And their party is certain to maintain a tight grip on the Legislature. Less certain is what will come of a proposal that asks voters to let the Legislature review and approve citizen-initiated constitutional amendments.
Here’s a look at what’s in play on Election Day:
Democrats haven’t won the governor’s office since 1988. Though Burgum seems to have an easy path to keeping that streak alive, the wealthy tech executive-turned-governor has come under increased criticism from Democrat Shelley Lenz and medical professionals for his management of the coronavirus pandemic. Burgum insists the state has done a good job in handling the virus even as its spread ranks among the worst in the nation. Burgum has touted a “light touch” by government and has refused to mandate masks or enforceable limits on gatherings of any kind. Burgum, considered a small-town North Dakota success story, won in 2016 by running as an outsider who would “reinvent government.” He has often been at odds with his own party, and has tapped his own wallet to try to take down a lawmaker who hasn’t been on board with his priorities.
It doesn’t take a visitor to North Dakota long to realize the state is Trump country. Voters overwhelmingly backed him four years ago and he appears to be as popular as ever, with pickups flying huge Trump banners and Trump swag sold at convenience stores and along the roadside. A big issue in the presidential election is energy, and Joe Biden’s pledge to transition away from fossil fuels doesn’t get traction in the nation’s No. 2 oil producer. The Dakota Access pipeline that carries much of the state’s oil also is in play; industry officials believe the tangle of lawsuits surrounding it likely will be decided by the next administration. Voters aren’t likely to forget the Trump administration granted permits for the project shortly after the president took office, reversing ones originally rejected by the Obama administration. No Democratic presidential hopeful has carried North Dakota since Lyndon B. Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964.
Republicans in the Legislature believe voters should give lawmakers a chance to thwart changes to the constitution approved by citizens. In other words, lawmakers want voters to ask themselves, “Are you really sure you want this?” Their move was inspired in part by successful ballot measures in recent years funded by out-of-state interests. Opponents say the measure on the ballot effectively gives lawmakers veto power over what citizens want.
Kelly Armstrong, who spent part of his first term defending Trump during impeachment hearings, is looking to return to the House. The attorney, former state party head and state senator from Dickinson breezed to victory two years ago. He’s seen as a heavy favorite against Democrat Zach Raknerud, a retail manager from Minot running his first statewide campaign. Raknerud says Armstrong has been a rubber stamp for Trump. Armstrong says he’s not in Congress to do Trump’s bidding and will work with Democrats. Armstrong has strong ties to North Dakota’s oil industry. His father, Mike, is a longtime oil driller who has been a competitor and colleague of billionaire Harold Hamm, considered the godfather of North Dakota’s oil industry. Armstrong also is childhood friends with Tommy Fisher, whose North Dakota company in January received $1.3 billion to build a section of Trump’s signature wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Republicans are hoping to bolster their majorities in the Legislature; Democrats hope to erode them just a bit with gains in the more liberal eastern part of the state. Republicans now have a 37-10 Senate advantage and a 79-15 edge in the House. Roughly half the Legislature’s seats are on the ballot. Democrats have been out in the cold since 1995. The GOP’s dominance takes on additional importance after this election. The party in power gets oversight of drawing new legislative districts next year following the release of federal census data.
Voters will decide whether to expand the state’s higher education board from eight to 15 members. The Legislature referred the measure last year, saying that expansion would help with a growing workload. Burgum worked against the idea after advocating instead for two boards — one for North Dakota State and the University of North Dakota, and one for the remaining nine schools. The Legislature killed the governor’s idea after smaller schools protested, believing they might become less important under a multiple-board system.