BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota Republicans nominated former Microsoft executive Doug Burgum Tuesday in a primary likely to decide the next governor, and voters also overturned the Legislature’s move to loosen the state’s Depression-era rules prohibiting corporate farming.
The GOP battle between Burgum and his longtime friend, state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, featured a spirited and expensive debate on which candidate is better suited to revive a state economy that is slumping due to depressed oil and crop prices.
Burgum, a millionaire Fargo businessman, is expected to be a heavy favorite in November over Rolla Rep. Marvin Nelson, who ran unopposed in the Democratic primary and is seen as a longshot in a state that has not had Democratic governor since 1992.
The North Dakota Farmers Union led the campaign to reverse the Legislature’s decision last year to exempt pork and dairy operations from the state’s anti-corporate farming law. Campaign disclosure filings show the Farmers Union, which has more than 40,000 members, has spent more than $1 million to overturn the law.
Supporters of the so-called ham-and-cheese law say the exemption is needed to save the two dying industries by giving them more access to capital and opportunities to expand.
Opponents said family farming had served North Dakota well and that the law was an invitation for big, out-of-state corporations to set up operations in the state.
Republican Sen. Terry Wanzek, who farms near Jamestown, and Sen. Joe Miller, R-Park River, also a farmer, were primary supporters of the legislation.
Wanzek said he was not surprised at the result Tuesday.
“It’s a lot easier to mislead people than to tell the truth — this wasn’t going to open the state up to corporations to buy everything up,” he said. “The opponents defended the status quo and offered no solutions to help the swine and dairy industries in our state.”
Mark Watne, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, was elated with the vote.
“The citizens of North Dakota do not support corporate farming and we should respoect that,” he said.
Stenehjem, who was elected attorney general in 2000, won the Republican convention delegates’ endorsement for governor in April though Burgum vowed to stay in the race. Burgum is known in North Dakota as the godfather of software for building Fargo’s Great Plains Software into a billion-dollar business, which he later sold to Microsoft.
The latest campaign filings show Stenehjem 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 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 would spend more of his own money than what he gets in donations. State law does not require candidates to disclose their own contributions.
Burgum had 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 had a wide geographic base, having lived in western, eastern and central North Dakota.
North Dakota has 47 legislative districts, and even-numbered districts have legislative campaigns this year. Republicans will have to decide primary races in three districts. North Dakota Democrats do not have any intraparty contests and did not put up challengers for Republican incumbents in two Senate seats and one House seat.
Associated Press writers Blake Nicholson in Bismarck and Dave Kolpack in Fargo contributed to this report.