North Dakota Governor: Burgum Bows Out?

by Jacob Rubashkin June 15, 2023 · 10:47 AM EDT

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum’s decision to launch a long-shot bid for the GOP presidential nomination makes it even more likely that the billionaire businessman does not seek a third term as the state’s governor.

That means the Peace Garden State could see an open seat gubernatorial election for just the second time since 2000, and the first since 2016, when Burgum scored a major upset over then-Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem in the primary. 

There’s also the distinct possibility that Burgum could end his presidential campaign and seek a third term himself. The filing deadline isn’t until April of next year, after the early presidential contests as well as Super Tuesday. “If he doesn’t take off, he would absolutely come back and run for governor,” one Republican strategist with extensive North Dakota experience told Inside Elections. Another longtime strategist plugged into the state concurred, saying “Burgum is the one to watch. All indications are that he would indeed run for a third term should the presidential race turn south for him.”

If Burgum doesn’t run, the Republican primary will be the most important contest in a state where Democrats haven’t won a statewide election since 2012 or a gubernatorial race since 1988.

At the top of the list of gubernatorial hopefuls are Rep. Kelly Armstrong, Sen. Kevin Cramer, and  Lt. Gov. Tammy Miller.

Cramer, who grew up in Kindred, is up for re-election to the Senate this year, so he would have to give up a guaranteed second term to pursue the governorship. Prior to his first election to the Senate in 2018 over Democratic incumbent Heidi Heitkamp, Cramer was the state’s at-large House member. He had sought that position three times unsuccessfully before finally winning in 2012, with backing from the anti-tax Club for Growth and the Tea Party-aligned FreedomWorks. In Congress, Cramer has been a close ally of former President Donald Trump, who he endorsed early among his peers in the 2016 GOP primary. In the Senate, he sits on the Armed Services, Environment, Veterans’ Affairs, and Banking committees.

Armstrong, who comes from the fast-growing oil town of Dickinson, is in his third term as the state’s at-large congressman. Before he was elected to Congress in 2018, he was a state senator and the chairman of the North Dakota GOP. In Congress, Armstrong sits on the Judiciary and Oversight committees, and is a member of the Republican Governance Group (formerly known as the Tuesday Group), which is a less conservative faction of the House GOP conference. Armstrong was one of 64 Republicans who voted to certify the 2020 Electoral College results in Arizona and Pennsylvania on Jan. 6, 2021, and also voted along with a small number of his GOP colleagues to codify same-sex marriage protections in 2022. However, he also has an 85 percent lifetime rating from Club for Growth (in the top third of Republicans) and received 100 percent ratings from the NRA and National Right to Life in 2022, as well as high scores from Americans for Prosperity and the American Conservative Union.

Miller, a native of Brocket (pop. 34) has only been Burgum’s deputy for a few months; she was appointed by the governor to replace Brent Sanford, with whom Burgum ran on a ticket in 2016 and 2020. Miller was previously the chief operating officer of Burgum’s gubernatorial office from 2020 to 2022, and before that had a long career in business at electrical distributor Border States, where she was CEO for 14 years. As lieutenant governor, Miller is the chair of the state investment board, which oversees $20 billion in assets. While this is her first public office, Miller was recruited to run for Senate in 2018 against Heitkamp, though she passed on a bid.

State Attorney General Drew Wrigley is another potential candidate. Wrigley was twice the U.S. Attorney for North Dakota, for eight years under President George W. Bush and two years under Trump. He was also the state’s lieutenant governor for six years, serving alongside Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who appointed Wrigley to the role in 2010 upon his own ascension to the governor’s mansion. Wrigley was appointed by Burgum as attorney general following Stenehjem’s death in 2022, and won a full term later that year. Wrigley was seen as a top contender for the governorship in 2016 but declined to run after admitting to an extramarital affair.

State Secretary of State Michael Howe could also run, though at just 36 he is younger and has less political experience than the others. Elected statewide in 2022 to succeed 30-year incumbent Al Jaeger, Howe previously served in the state House from 2016 to 2022, and he managed Armstrong’s 2018 congressional campaign.

And former state Rep. Rick Becker, a self-described “ultraconservative” who often clashed with Burgum and GOP leadership in the state legislature, could run. The plastic surgeon and radio host ran for governor in 2016 but dropped out at the state party convention. In 2022, he first challenged Sen. John Hoeven at the convention (where he nearly won the party’s endorsement) and then ran as an independent in the general election, winning 19 percent of the vote.

North Dakota employs a convention-primary system to select a nominee. Party delegates meet at a convention to endorse a candidate, but that endorsement does not guarantee ballot access. Some candidates choose to drop out if they fail to secure an endorsement, as did Armstrong’s 2018 opponent, Tom Campbell. Other convention losers, such as Burgum himself, have gone on to compete in and win the primary despite their earlier showing. And some candidates don’t even bother to compete at the convention, like Cramer in his 2012 election.

If either Cramer or Armstrong runs, they would create another open statewide seat that would also attract significant attention, and could draw away potential challengers from the gubernatorial race.

But, said the longtime Republican strategist, “nobody is going to do anything until they see if Burgum catches any fire in the presidential race.”