• Wed. Oct 4th, 2023


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‘A Long Shot, for Sure’: Sizing Up Burgum, and Most of the G.O.P. Field

In North Dakota, Gov. Doug Burgum’s quixotic presidential campaign has people scratching their heads, but then again, many of the 2024 hopefuls have prompted the same wonder.

With Gov. Doug Burgum’s money and his family’s vision, Fargo, N.D., has undoubtedly changed in recent decades. Broadway, its main drag, is packed with restaurants, cafes, retailers and offices lovingly converted from old factories.

Parking lots have been turned into public parks. A warehouse saved from the wrecking ball now houses North Dakota State University’s architecture and arts program. With a population of nearly 127,000 — 16 percent of North Dakota’s total population — the largest city for hundreds of miles is growing, in size and diversity, with a liberal tilt.

But as a base for a presidential run, Fargo is still the smallest of towns, closer to Winnipeg, in Canada, than to Minneapolis, the nearest American metropolis. The hamlet of Arthur, where Mr. Burgum grew up and where his family’s prosperous, century-old grain elevator dominates the flat landscape, is still more removed from the nation’s political currents. Even North Dakotans who express admiration for their governor’s wealth, business acumen and energy are baffled by his suddenly lofty political ambitions.

“He’s a long shot, for sure,” said Brad Moen, 69, of Jamestown, N.D., who has known Mr. Burgum for 60 years and traveled 100 miles for his presidential introduction on Wednesday. “California, New York, Ohio, Florida — they’re the big dogs, not North Dakota.”

Of course Mr. Burgum has a plan for winning the Republican nomination: eschewing the culture wars and getting the party back on a business-friendly economic message of low taxes, less regulation and can-do entrepreneurship.

Fargo, N.D., with a population of nearly 127,000, is the largest city for hundreds of miles and is growing in size and diversity.Dan Koeck for The New York Times

But first he’ll face the other new entrants in a G.O.P. field that as of this week seems largely set.

Former Vice President Mike Pence has piety and consistent conservatism to remind evangelical Christians of what brought them to politics in the first place. Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, has his tell-it-like-it-is pugilism, as the only candidate willing to take on Donald J. Trump. Tim Scott, the senator from South Carolina, has hope and optimism. Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, has Trumpism without Trump.

Yet all these options seem to have done nothing but carve up the Republican primary electorate that is not with Mr. Trump into ever more slender slivers — leaving the former president’s inviolable piece of the pie looking larger and larger with every new candidate.

That has North Dakotans asking the same question that many other Americans are: What do these candidates really want — a cabinet post in a second Trump administration, a higher national profile for a future presidential bid, a vanity project after a long career? Mr. Pence is seen by many Republican voters as the ultimate traitor, the man they wrongly believe could have given Mr. Trump a victory in 2020 and declined. Mr. Christie is viewed with hostility by many Republicans because of his outspoken contempt for Mr. Trump — and with suspicion by anti-Trump Republicans because of his loyalty to him until now.

As for Mr. Burgum, who knows?

“I think that he is genuinely thinking this is a vehicle for promoting North Dakota,” Dustin Gawrylow, a conservative political commentator and activist in the state, said of Mr. Burgum. Or, he suggested, “he may have his eye on a cabinet position.”

Tony S. Grindberg, a utility executive and former state senator, was at Mr. Burgum’s rally on Wednesday working through how the governor could pursue his quixotic presidential run and prepare to seek a third term in Bismarck.

“Technically, he can,” he concluded, hopefully.

Tony S. Grindberg, a former state senator, hoped that Mr. Burgum could pursue his presidential bid while preparing to seek a third term as governor if his loftier bid falters.Dan Koeck for The New York Times

Mr. Burgum’s path to the White House seems particularly forbidding. His story is out of central casting: the son of a tiny town who as a teenager lost his father, and then channeled a natural entrepreneurial spirit into enterprises that included chimney sweeping, a business software empire and venture capital — all within the state lines of North Dakota.

Mr. Burgum’s status as a billionaire traces back to Microsoft, which bought his company, Great Plains Software, in 2001 in a $1.1 billion stock deal that made him one of the richest men in the Dakotas. All that money will give him staying power in the race, but it cannot get him the 40,000 individual donors or the 1 percent in the polls that he needs to qualify for the Republican debate stage. It won’t make him a household name, and among some of the Republican faithful, it could conjure feverish images of Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder who features in many of the most outlandish far-right conspiracy theories.

Even North Dakotans are not sure what to make of their governor. They can squint to see the politician they want to see.

Jonathan Melgaard, 29, sees Mr. Burgum as the essence of nonpartisan leadership, an effective entrepreneur and bridge builder inspiring enough to lure him back from Colorado, where he worked for the Aspen Institute to help build a progressive, forward-looking Fargo. To voters like Mr. Melgaard, Mr. Burgum is the investor who promised to make oil-rich North Dakota “carbon neutral,” in part by backing an ambitious pipeline to bring carbon dioxide produced as an unwanted byproduct of ethanol from around the Midwest to the absorbent 300-foot-thick Broom Creek sandstone 7,000 feet under North Dakota’s surface.

Jonathan Melgaard said that Mr. Burgum’s leadership drew him back to North Dakota.Dan Koeck for The New York Times

“I am not a Republican,” Mr. Melgaard said. “I do not subscribe to conservative governance. I do subscribe to effective governance.”

Mr. Moen waved off all that talk of carbon capture and electric vehicles and latched on to Mr. Burgum’s promise to bolster the state’s abundant traditional energy sources, oil and coal.

Outside Mr. Burgum’s event, Shelly Reilly, 59, joined a small group of protesters determined to discount the governor’s nonpartisan business pitch and emphasize the bills he has actually signed, which banned gender transition care, abortion and the discussion of L.G.B.T.Q. issues in elementary schools.

“I know people who have left because of him,” she said. “They’re leaving in droves.”

Even Mr. Burgum doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with his record. He ran on innovation, vowing to diversify the state’s economy beyond agriculture and oil by expanding the technology sector and appealing to educated professionals with distance learning and thriving cities.

Fargo shows that promise, but social policy will be Mr. Burgum’s legacy. In a recent interview with Joel Heitkamp, a popular radio host and the brother of former Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, Mr. Burgum acknowledged that the six-week exception for rape and incest in the new abortion ban would be so short that a woman might not know in time whether she was pregnant, but he said that if he had vetoed it, the legislature would have overridden him. He said the same thing about the anti-L.G.B.T.Q. rights bills, even as he insisted most of them codified what was happening in the state anyway.

“He was the most exciting person to become governor in my lifetime,” said Earl Pomeroy, a Democrat who was North Dakota’s at-large House member for 18 years before the rising tide of Republicanism swept him out. He voted for Mr. Burgum, Mr. Pomeroy said, “but it’s been years of unspectacular leadership out of the governor’s office.” He added, “He’s been somewhat captive to the crazy legislature.”

Fargo’s downtown is now packed with restaurants, cafes, retailers and offices lovingly converted from old factories.Dan Koeck for The New York Times

The governorship was Mr. Burgum’s first elective office. He spent freely to win his race in 2016 and then spent freely to bolster his support.

In 2020, Mr. Burgum clashed with the state House Appropriations Committee chairman, Jeff Delzer, especially over the governor’s prized project, a new Theodore Roosevelt presidential library near the Burgum ranch in Medora, N.D. After the conflict, Mr. Burgum funded a primary challenger running as a “Trump Republican” against Mr. Delzer.

The challenger, David Andahl, died of Covid-19 before his name could be taken off the ballot — and won. Then local officials reappointed Mr. Delzer to the seat.

The carbon dioxide pipeline, bankrolled by the oil and gas billionaire Harold Hamm, has angered activists on the right and the left.

Yet Mr. Burgum’s rally on Wednesday was packed with past and present elected officials.

“There are a lot of legislators that outright fear what Doug Burgum will do to them,” Mr. Gawrylow said. “Burgum has shown he is not afraid to put his money where his mouth is, and that is scary.”

Mr. Heitkamp takes Mr. Burgum’s presidential ambitions at face value. He acknowledged the rampant speculation that the governor doesn’t actually believe he can beat Mr. Trump to the nomination and then secure the White House. But Mr. Heitkamp thinks Mr. Burgum is a believer.

“He’s a nerd, and he looks in the mirror and sees something that others don’t,” Mr. Heitkamp, a former Democratic state senator, said. “When he shaves in the morning, he sees a president.”