Since Heitkamp declined last year to join the race, Democrats have struggled to find a serious candidate. Former state agriculture commissioner Sarah Vogel is the only Democrat to express interest so far. But because Democrats are not expected to field a formidable candidate, the Republican primary winner is likely to become the state’s next governor.
And that’s where things could get interesting. Burgum said he doesn’t intend to abide by the convention process through which the GOP traditionally picks a nominee.
Typically, whoever wins a majority of the delegate vote and secures the state party endorsement at the convention is the presumed nominee, but Burgum has vowed to compete in the June primary regardless of the convention outcome. Since Stenehjem is expected to win the party’s backing at the convention, he could end up in a competitive one-on-one June primary against Burgum in which he could be significantly outspent.
Burgum’s choice to disregard the convention outcome isn’t without precedent. Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer took that path when he won the open-seat House race in 2012.
Burgum sold the company he founded, Great Plains Software, to Microsoft for $1.1 billion in 2001, a move he told Fortune in an interview actually created more jobs in Fargo. It will also allow him to self-fund most of his campaign, if necessary.
While he’s a first-time candidate, Burgum isn’t without ties to the Republican establishment. He’s been a donor to local Republicans and served as an honorary cochair of Dalrymple’s 2012 campaign.
Stenehjem, who has been in elected office for more than three decades and this week rolled out endorsements from most of the state's GOP legislators, hasn’t faced a competitive statewide race since he was first elected attorney general in 2000.
He also hasn’t had to raise much money for his contests. Stenehjem raised $219,000 in 2000 when he beat Democrat Glenn Pomeroy by more than 10 points. Since then he’s consistently won reelection by wide margins while raising just more than $1 million across his five contests for the attorney general’s office. He’ll likely have to greatly increase that this year.
One Republican operative who worked on the 2012 gubernatorial race expressed concern about Stenehjem’s preparedness for a deep-pocketed candidate like Burgum, noting simply, “He’s a game changer.”
According to the Forum News Service, Burgum’s brother was Stenehjem’s law school roommate at the University of North Dakota, but the personal relationship doesn’t necessarily mean a primary between the two will be civil. North Dakota is a relatively small place, and personal relationships aren’t uncommon.
“Somebody was a roommate or somebody’s brother’s cousin’s sister at some point,” Leighton said.
On the issues, most of the attention in the primary is expected to be cast on the state’s economy, particularly declining oil and agriculture prices. Burgum is pushing for a bigger emphasis on tech and entrepreneurship, while Stenehjem represents a continuation of the status quo defined by the state’s recent oil boom.