MCFEELY: GOP 'outsiders' really the ultimate insiders
FARGO — To steal a line from the always-classy football player Adrian Peterson, North Dakota establishment Republicans had their best-laid succession plans run up their donkey last year when self-branded "outsider" Doug Burgum trounced the party insiders' hand-picked candidate Wayne Stenehjem in the primary race for governor.
Stenehjem is the state's attorney general, a longtime part of the Republican country club. You know the usual suspects: John Hoeven, Jack Dalrymple, Ron Rauschenberger, Kelly Armstrong, Rick Berg and many others. They selected Stenehjem as the party's standard-bearer to replace Gov. Dalrymple.
Then along came Burgum and his millions. After losing the nomination at the GOP convention, Burgum challenged Stenehjem in a primary election for the right to be on the November general-election ballot. With the help of a slick consulting firm and lots of polling, Burgum tied his wagon firmly to presidential candidate Donald Trump and the "outsider" label. Burgum was not a politician, had never held political office, and was a successful businessman who was going to use his boardroom savvy if elected. That was the play.
It worked. The Fargo software magnate trounced the longtime politician and coasted in the general election.
Viewing Burgum as an outsider required some creative thinking, of course. No, he'd never held office. But Burgum was long a member of the insider club, either with connections to powerful office-holders or through political donations.
Let's put it this way: If Burgum wanted an audience with the governor or a U.S. senator, he got it. But his campaign sold the "outsider" label well because it knew that's what voters wanted.
Give the GOP establishment credit for being quick learners. After Burgum ran it up their donkey, GOP insiders are stumbling all over themselves to run as outsiders against Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in 2018.
First, there was state senator Tom Campbell — literally the definition of an insider because he's had a spot in the Legislature for five years and has run three campaigns. Campbell jumped into the race with millions of his own dollars, hiring the same consulting firm as Burgum and painfully painting himself as an outsider.
Then there are a couple of potential candidates, recruited by the GOP's power brokers, who come from the same mold as Burgum — wealthy, successful business people who've never run for office. But like Burgum, Kathleen Neset and Tammy Miller are well-connected insiders with access to power. Yet their supporters are busy labeling them "outsiders."
Neset is member of the state Board of Higher Education, formerly its chair, a position to which she was appointed by the governor. She is connected.
Miller is the CEO of Border States Electric who is tight with Berg. One of her assistants at Border States worked on Berg's staff when he was a U.S. representative. Miller is connected, too.
Politics are all about branding. The brand that works today is "outsider." Campbell, Neset and Miller are no more outsiders than Stenehjem, Dalrymple and Hoeven. But they are hoping what works for Burgum works for them, too, as silly as it seems.