North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum’s (R) expected 2024 presidential campaign launch this week is leaving many in the Republican Party questioning why the generally low-profile politician is throwing his name into the ever-growing primary.
On Monday, Burgum’s team rolled out a slickly produced pre-campaign launch video, touting him as “a new leader for a changing economy,” while honoring his North Dakota roots.
“A kid from small-town North Dakota. That’s America,” Burgum says in the spot.
But with former President Trump dominating the 12-person field and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis firmly in second place, many Republicans are asking why Burgum is making a play for the nomination now.
“When I first heard his name, I had to google him,” said David Kochel, an Iowa Republican strategist.
“If me and you who live in this world have to Google a guy, I don’t know how he makes up that time,” said Chad Connelly, former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party.
North Dakota Republicans also say they’re unsurprised Burgum has yet to register on the national stage, given the state’s relatively low profile.
“North Dakotans are always proud when we get some attention because we’re kind of the flyover country,” said Lori Hinz, RNC committeewoman for North Dakota. “So it’s unusual for us to have a presidential candidate, let’s just put it that way.”
But Burgum’s pre-launch video seeks to remedy that, including picturesque footage of the state’s vast plains and mountains and personal anecdotes from the governor.
“My dad died when I was 14,” Burgum begins the video, reflecting on how he was told after he was pulled off of his basketball team’s bus.
Burgum also touts his experience as CEO of Great Plains Software, which he made public in 1997 and sold to Microsoft in 2001. The governor goes on call for “new leadership in our changing economy” and “innovation over regulation.”
“We should unleash energy production and start selling energy to our allies instead of buying it from our enemies,” Burgum says.
The messaging paints the governor as a pro-business leader looking to revamp the country’s stance on energy by tapping into all of its available resources.
“He has been consistent with his pro-business stuff. That is what he knows. That is the world in which he comes,” Hinz said. “He’s very much energy, energy, energy, which we love in North Dakota, we’re all about that here: gas and oil.”
The governor displayed a socially conservative streak this past legislative session in North Dakota.
In April, Burgum signed legislation effectively banning transgender women and girls from competing on female K-12 and college sports teams. Later that month, he signed a bill that criminalizes giving gender-affirming care to people younger than 18. Then, Burgum signed one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country into law; the near-total ban’s exceptions for rape, incest or medical emergency are mostly limited to the first six weeks of pregnancy.
The policies reflected those passed in other states this year, including in Florida, where DeSantis has also implemented a six-week abortion ban and restrictions on gender-affirming treatments for minors.
But despite that socially conservative record, Burgum seems to want to focus on economic priorities. During a conversation with the Bismarck Tribune’s editorial board last month, the governor said culture war issues took away from the state Legislature’s “successes.”
“The amount of time that … spent on some of that stuff, you’d think it was the only thing happening in our state,” Burgum told the paper’s editorial board. “I talk to real people, creating real jobs, building real companies and hiring people, and some of the things the legislature is focused on is not what the citizens are focused on.”
This sentiment is already being reflected in Burgum’s pre-launch video. Burgum brushed off the use of the term “woke,” which GOP candidates have used to criticize bringing awareness to social issues, particularly those involving race.
“I grew up in a tiny town in North Dakota. Woke is what you did at 5 a.m. to start the day,” Burgum says in the spot.
DeSantis, who entered the 2024 race late last month, relies on the term particularly heavily.
But some Republicans argue culture war issues could be the key to GOP primary voters.
“Everywhere I go, people are talking about that stuff,” Connelly said.
Others argue candidate lanes are less of a factor in races than stylistic differences.
“The combativeness and celebrity culture in politics, who can make the loudest noise and who can get the most attention. Who’s got a big online presence,” Kochel noted. “Doug Burgum doesn’t have any of that, so he’ll have to purchase all of it.”
However, early state caucusgoers and voters will ultimately get to determine which issues and candidate styles are driving the primary.
“He’s clearly looking to set up a contrast with what is becoming the John Wick primary of 2024,” said Jim Merrill, a New Hampshire-based GOP strategist. “He’s coming in with virtually no name ID, but if you’re going to build name ID somewhere and make a case, it would be New Hampshire.”
Burgum is expected to formally announce his candidacy Wednesday, then travel to Iowa and New Hampshire. Iowa will be important to Burgum, not only because of its first-in-the-nation contest but its geographic proximity to North Dakota. Burgum’s pre-launch video was notably filled with imagery associated with the Midwest.
“For a person from Iowa, it looked very familiar to me — small-town life, kids on a baseball field and all of that,” Kochel said. “I’m sure he knows how to talk to Midwesterners in a way that will feel relatable.”
While Burgum’s personal wealth and resources will be a huge plus for his campaign, his low name ID could hinder him early in the campaign. Last week, the Republican National Committee released the criteria candidates will need to meet to make it to the party’s first televised debate in August. Candidates will have to poll at a minimum of 1 percent in at least three national polls, or at 1 percent in two national polls and one early state poll from two of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. On top of that, they must have a minimum of 40,000 unique donors and at least 200 unique donors from 20 or more states and territories.
“I’m not sure it’s worth spending $25 million to get on a debate stage, but that’s probably the only option he has,” Kochel said. “If he’s got the money, I suppose he’ll spend it. It does seem to me a bit like a vanity project just because he’s not someone who is at all known to Republicans.”
Burgum enters the race following former Vice President Mike Pence and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, bringing the field to 12. Polls show Trump continuing to dominate the field, but early state strategists are adamant the field is by no means decided.
“The fact that a thousand people showed up at Joni Ernst’s event over the weekend and were pretty enthusiastic for a number of the candidates that spoke that day suggests to me that the activists in Iowa, they certainly haven’t closed their mind to the idea that someone else could come in and shake things up,” Kochel said of the Iowa Republican senator’s fundraiser.