“There’s a value to being underestimated all the time,” according to North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum. The sixty-six-year-old billionaire and former software entrepreneur knows something about being underestimated. He turned a fledgling software startup based in America’s fourth least populous state into a cutting-edge company that Microsoft bought. He entered the Republican primary for North Dakota governor in 2016 trailing the favorite by fifty points and won the nomination and the governorship. He has now launched a longshot campaign for the Republican presidential nomination that has even “his supporters scratching their heads.” If Burgum achieves what conventional political wisdom suggests he can’t, he will become the first president of the United States to be born in North Dakota.
Name: Douglas James Burgum
Date of Birth: August 1, 1956
Birthplace: Arthur, North Dakota
Political Party: Republican
Marital Status: Married to Kathryn Helgaas Burgum (2016-present); Karen Stoker (1991-2003)
Children: Jesse, Joe, Tom (with Karen Stoker)
Alma Mater: North Dakota State University, B.A. in university studies, 1978; Stanford University, MBA, 1980
Career: Consultant, McKinsey & Company (1980-83); Chairman and CEO of Great Plains Software (1983-2001); Senior vice president at Microsoft Business Solutions Group (2001-07); Chairman of the board of SuccessFactors (2007-12); Founder of the Kilbourne Group (2007-16); Co-founder of Arthur Ventures (2008-16); Executive chairman of the board of directors for Intelligent InSites (2011-16);Chairman of board for Atlassian (2012-16); Governor of North Dakota (2016-present)
Campaign Website: DougBurgum.com
Twitter Handle: @DougBurgum
Instagram Handle: @DougBurgum
Burgum introduced his campaign in steps. On June 5, he tweeted a video that hailed his rise from small-town kid where “woke was what you did at 5 a.m. to start the day” to “self-made, world-class business leader” and “extraordinarily successful governor.” The video stopped short, however, of saying that he was running for president.
Coming Soon. Watch for a preview of Wednesday’s big announcement. pic.twitter.com/rvzYMr4SYc— Doug Burgum (Text "DOUG" to 70177) (@DougBurgum) June 5, 2023
On June 6, Burgum wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. The title conveyed the message: “Why I Am Running for President in 2024.” His pitch was straightforward:
We need a change in the White House. We need a new leader for a changing economy. That’s why I’m announcing my run for president today.
He added that:
When we empower American innovation and energy production, we strengthen the value of the dollar, stop China and Iran, and prevent wars such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The next day he formally announced his campaign to a cheering crowd in Fargo, North Dakota.
His twenty-two minute speech was long on his small-town roots and his appreciation for the people who shaped his life. Indeed, he argued that “frankly, big cities could use more ideas and more values from small towns right now.” He said that “to unlock the best of America, we need a leader who is clearly focused on three things: economy, energy, and national security.”
Burgum hailed U.S. energy policy as critical to both the economy and national security. “Clean, reliable, low-cost energy brings manufacturing back to the U.S. and reduces our supply-chain risk,” and “when we’re truly energy independent and we’re supporting our allies, that’s when we stabilize the globe and restore America as the leader of the free world.”
In his announcement speech, Burgum also said he would be “fighting to unite the country against our common enemies, like China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and the drug cartels.” He didn’t offer any specific policies, besides increasing U.S. energy production, to address these threats.
Burgum was born and raised in Arthur, North Dakota, a town located thirty miles northwest of Fargo, the most populous city in the state with some 128,000 residents. As Burgum stressed in his announcement speech, Arthur is a very small town. Its population hovered around three hundred when he was growing up, and his high school had fewer than fifty students.
Burgum’s life story has a bit of Horatio Alger to it. He showed entrepreneurial instincts from an early age. When he was eight, he tried to start a newspaper. He then held a series of jobs during his teenage years where, as he puts it, you showered after work rather than before it. His father died suddenly when he was fourteen. He learned the sad news just as his high school basketball team was set to leave for a game.
After finishing high school, Burgum attended North Dakota State University, which is located in Fargo. There he started a chimney sweeping business. Money was the driving factor. At the time, North Dakota’s minimum wage was $2.30 per hour. An hour’s worth of chimney sweeping generated $40. The work was dirty—and dangerous. But Burgum parlayed it into admission to Stanford Business School.
At Stanford, Burgum became friends with Steve Balmer, who would later succeed Bill Gates as CEO of Microsoft and whose career path would later intersect with Burgum’s. After graduation, Burgum worked for two years as a consultant in Chicago for McKinsey & Company. Then in 1983, he returned to North Dakota and borrowed $250,000 against land he had inherited from his father. He used the money to buy a stake in a financial software start-up called Great Plains Software. (Burgum’s grandparents founded a prosperous grain business that remains under family control, and North Dakota State named a dormitory after his grandmother in the 1960s.) Burgum likes to say that he “literally bet the farm” on Great Plains Software.
Although that move wasn’t quite a chapter from a Horatio Alger novel, it was a smart one. Within a year Burgum, with his family’s help, took control of the company and made himself CEO. Through a lot of hard work and close calls, he turned Great Plains Software into a powerhouse accounting software firm. In 1997, it became the first technology company in North Dakota to go public. In 2001, Microsoft bought Great Plains Software for $1.1 billion. The purchase reunited Burgum with Ballmer, who by then had become Microsoft’s CEO. Burgum spent six years as senior vice president of the Microsoft Business Solutions Group.
After leaving Microsoft in 2007, Burgum returned to his entrepreneurial roots. He started and ran several different companies. But he found himself drawn to politics. When North Dakota’s incumbent Republican governor decided against running for reelection in 2016, Burgum threw his hat in the ring. He explained the decision this way:
I’d been making payroll in North Dakota every two weeks from the time I was 26 years old. I had 30 years of experience in hiring and trying to attract talent and capital back to North Dakota. And any time someone talks about the future of North Dakota, what are the challenges? Where do we get the talent, and where do we get the capital? Well, that’s what I’ve been dealing with my whole working career. I thought, wouldn’t it be great to run a state like that—to develop talent and attract capital?
It didn’t look like a smart move at the time. The state’s incumbent Republican attorney general was widely expected to win. He had name recognition and the endorsement of the state’s Republican Party. Yet in part because Burgum could draw on his deep financial pockets, he won the Republican primary by twenty-one percentage points. He then won the general election by fifty-seven percentage points.
Burgum governed North Dakota as a traditional conservative. He cut government spending, balanced the budget, and enacted the largest tax cut in North Dakota’s history. North Dakotans liked what they saw. They reelected him to a second term in 2020. North Dakota does not have term limits, so Burgum can run for reelection in 2024.
Burgum is running on the message that he is “a new leader for a changing economy” who will bring “small-town common sense” to Washington. He also says that he wants to unite Americans rather than divide them. As he put it in his Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Our enemies aren’t our neighbors down the street.” Indeed, by “working together, we’ll achieve the best for America.” To that end, in his initial campaigning he has avoided the culture-war attacks that figure prominently in the campaigns of his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination.
That doesn’t mean that Burgum is liberal on social issues. He isn’t. In April, he signed into law a bill that banned abortions in North Dakota in most instances. The only exceptions were for rape and incest victims, and even then only in the first six weeks of pregnancy, and for some medical emergencies. A few days earlier, he signed into law a bill that criminalized efforts to provide gender-transition care to anyone under the age of eighteen.
Burgum and Trump
Burgum endorsed Trump in 2016 and again in 2020. He is saying little about Trump, however, on the campaign trail. Indeed, in his first five days after entering the race, he avoided mentioning the forty-fifth president by name, even when prompted. He has said that “you wouldn’t enter a market as someone with 0% market share and lead off with criticism of the others.”
When asked whether the Justice Department was right to indict Trump for his mishandling of classified information, Burgum dodged the question by saying he feared that voters saw a legal double standard at play:
The thing that I learned from being on the ground in New Hampshire and in Iowa is that voters are very concerned about a double standard. But they…see the news. They…understand…that Joe Biden had documents, you know, sitting in his garage and they’re just saying, hey, you know, are we in a spot in our country where that we’ve got a completely double standard, one standard for Republicans and one standard for Democrats?
Burgum pointedly did not say that he believed that the Justice Department was holding Trump to a different standard.
When asked if he would pardon Trump, as rival candidate Vivek Ramaswamy has pledged, Burgum sidestepped the question: “You’re asking me a hypothetical question about something from two years from now…so I just tend to stay away from hypotheticals.” He then suggested that Biden should pardon Trump for the good of the nation. Burgum has said that he will support whoever is the Republican nominee in 2024.
Burgum’s Foreign Policy Views
Burgum says that national security is one of his three campaign priorities. He has said little on the record, however, about his foreign policy worldview or what specific policies he would try to enact.
Like all of his Republican rivals, Burgum says he will secure America’s borders. “I've only made one campaign promise so far, he said on Face the Nation shortly after he announced his candidacy. “And that's if, if elected, I will get down to the, to the southern border in the first two weeks, not take two years, like Biden did.” He didn’t say what he would do when he got there, and the moderator didn’t ask him.
In February 2022, Burgum was quick to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He called on the United States and its allies to provide aid to Kyiv, and he urged Washington to sell more energy to America’s friends, partners, and allies.
My statement regarding Russia's military attacks on Ukraine: pic.twitter.com/v7F9xTwx56— Gov. Doug Burgum (@GovDougBurgum) February 24, 2022
He continues to argue that “Russia cannot have a win coming out of this, because if it’s a win for them, it’s a win for China.” He has not said, however, how he might alter the Biden’s administration’s approach to the war should he make it to the White House.
As Burgum’s comment about Russia suggests, he’s sees China as the main threat. “We are in a cold war right now with China,” he told Iowa voters earlier this, month. “We are absolutely in a cold war.” He has yet to map out a strategy for countering China. He has declined to say whether he would defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion. He instead stresses the importance of deterrence:
Our objective should be to deter China from attacking Taiwan in the first place by preparing to defend Taiwan and win if necessary. That requires an intense focus on economic statecraft as well as military deterrence in a manner we don’t see from this administration.
Burgum hasn’t said what these economic and military steps would be. In the past, he has applauded trade with China because of its importance to North Dakota.
With China pledging to buy $200B+ in additional US goods over the next 2 yrs, including $40B-50B in ag products, the Phase One trade deal is a major win for ND farmers & ranchers. Thanks to @POTUS & @USTradeRep for their efforts to improve trade fairness. https://t.co/Ppiu2bZGuy— Gov. Doug Burgum (@GovDougBurgum) January 15, 2020
He has called on the federal government to review and possibly restrict Chinese purchases of land in North Dakota.
Climate change doesn’t look to be an issue for Burgum, at least not if you believe that reducing the emission of heat-trapping gases needs to be a priority. He wants the United States to move more aggressively to exploit its fossil-fuel resources rather than focus on renewable energy. “America,” in his view, “has to stop buying energy from our enemies and start selling energy to our friends and allies!” That position is no doubt shaped by the importance of fossil fuels to North Dakota’s economy. The western part of the state sits atop the Bakken Formation, a major source of oil and gas production in the United States. North Dakota is also a major coal-producing state. Nonetheless, Burgum has vowed to make North Dakota carbon neutral by 2030. He would do so by exploiting technological advances to capture and store carbon underground. Last summer, a North Dakota ethanol plant opened the state’s first commercial carbon-capture-and-storage facility. Whether such technologies can be scaled up fast enough to avert catastrophic climate change remains to be seen.
More on Burgum
Unlike many presidential candidates, Burgum did not set the table for his race for the White House by writing a campaign book recounting his life and laying out his governing philosophy. He also hasn’t attracted much in the way of long-form magazine coverage, which isn’t surprising since his name wasn’t on the list of likely candidates that political pundits were kicking around a year ago.
Back in 2017, Forbes named Burgum the country’s “Best Entrepreneurial Governor” and featured an interview that covered how he got into Stanford Business School and why he decided to run for governor.
Other posts in this series:
Sinet Adous assisted in the preparation of this post.