North Dakota GOP gubernatorial campaign enters homestretch

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Posted: Jun 09, 2016 5:45 PM
North Dakota GOP gubernatorial campaign enters homestretch

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — After months of rallies in tiny town cafes and fundraisers in big city venues, the Republican candidates for North Dakota governor are making their final push in an intense, expensive and often acrimonious campaign between longtime friends that has focused largely on leadership qualifications as the state's oil revenues decline.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and his GOP rival, multimillionaire and former Microsoft executive Doug Burgum, both are big on swagger but say they will continue to fight for every available vote leading up to Tuesday's primary election.

"I'm feeling confident," said Stenehjem, the GOP's endorsed candidate, who intends to focus the remaining days of his campaign shaking hands, kissing more babies and reminding people to vote. On Friday, he'll wave to crowds and hand out campaign buttons, bumper stickers and his trademark Tootsie Rolls to parade-goers in the southeastern farming community of Oakes during its annual Irrigation Days festival.

"This is the point where it's all about retail politics and something I've done many times before and what I enjoy most," said Stenehjem, who was first elected attorney general in 2000 and has been easily re-elected ever since.

Burgum is looking forward to continuing his statewide tour in a 42-year-old bus with a leaky roof that already has logged some 16,000 miles and lost its muffler twice along the campaign trail.

Burgum said he has visited some 60 North Dakota towns that have a population of more than 1,000 people, and dozens of smaller ones. In the past few days, he has made campaign stops in more than a dozen communities and plans many more prior to Tuesday as his bus tour heads east to his base in Fargo.

"We feel great about our campaign," he said. "We know we are going to win."

Stenehjem and Burgum have been longtime friends. Burgum's late brother, Brad, was Stenehjem's roommate at the University of North Dakota law school. Brad Burgum also served as treasurer for Stenehjem's successful bid for state House in 1976.

The two candidates have exchanged Christmas cards for years. But as the primary nears, the Stenehjem-Burgum matchup has gotten increasingly prickly, with both campaigns accusing the other of negative campaigning.

Burgum has tried to paint Stenehjem as part of an establishment that has done a poor job at managing money and has put the state's future in doubt. Stenehjem said on many occasions that North Dakota is "well-positioned" to handle the downturn in oil and farm prices and the state needs an experienced hand at the helm.

It is a much different and expensive race than what Stenehjem has faced in his political career. The money chase in the contest dwarfs fund-raising for any previous governor's race, he said.

The latest campaign filings show Stenehjem has raised more than $1 million in campaign donations for the primary race, including shifting $145,000 from his past attorney general campaign treasury within the past week. Burgum has raised about $1.1 million, or about $60,000 more than Stenehjem's total, filings show, but he also has personally funded his campaign. And though he won't say exactly how much, Burgum said he intends to spend more of his own money than what he gets in donations. State law does not require candidates to disclose their own contributions.

Burgum has a much greater presence in television, radio and internet advertising, but Stenehjem said the disparity does not worry him. Stenehjem is a native of Mohall who grew up in Williston and has a wide geographic base, having lived in western, eastern and central North Dakota.

"I think a lot of people in North Dakota already know me and trust me," Stenehjem said.

Burgum, whose barrage of ads is especially prevalent online, makes no apologies for spending his own cash.

"Wayne has a 40-year political career and virtually 100-percent name recognition," Burgum said. "When you believe in something, you want to put everything you can into it."