Doug Burgum Charms Trump and Donors to Emerge as VP Prospect

(Bloomberg) -- About this time last year, voters didn’t know the name Doug Burgum. Just to get on a debate stage with other Republican presidential primary contenders, he had to give out $20 gift cards in return for $1 campaign donations.

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Now that he’s on the short list to be Donald Trump’s running mate, it’s a different story: Just listening to Burgum speak at a fundraiser costs $10,000. Want to ask him a question? That’ll be $25,000.

The North Dakota governor crisscrosses the country campaigning for the former president, who has turned to him during events to provide details on energy policy. He has also charmed donors, with his long career as a business executive helping him speak their language. Among his supporters: Kevin O’Leary, chairman of O’Leary Ventures and one of the investing stars of the television show Shark Tank.

“Trump’s a bombastic vision guy, but you need someone to execute,” O’Leary said in an interview. “Burgum will get it done.”

Hailing from Arthur, North Dakota — a town of roughly 300 residents — Burgum, 67, got an MBA from Stanford University, worked as a consultant at McKinsey & Co., and leveraged his family farm to start a tech company called Great Plains Software. He sold his firm in 2001 to Microsoft Corp. for $1.1 billion and stayed on as a senior vice president until 2007.

He also founded real estate development company Kilbourne Group and venture capital firm Arthur Ventures before entering politics and winning his first term as governor in 2016.

Burgum tried to leverage that resume to build support for a bid for the Republican presidential nomination. And while that effort flopped, it propelled him into Trump’s orbit. Now, a host of business executives and lawmakers are pitching the governor as the ideal running mate.

Trump has largely been quiet on the national stage recently, letting President Joe Biden’s disastrous debate performance and anxieties about his candidacy dominate the news cycle. This week, the GOP nominee is slated to return to the trail and host a rally at his Doral golf club in Florida on Tuesday. With the Republican National Convention set for next week, the clock is ticking for him to name a vice presidential pick.

Brian Hughes, a senior adviser to the campaign, said Trump’s top criteria in selecting a vice president is a strong leader. “Anyone telling you they know who or when President Trump will choose his VP is lying unless that person is named Donald J. Trump,” Hughes said.

Burgum declined to comment for this story. He has evaded answering questions about his political ambitions, telling reporters that he isn’t auditioning for Trump’s ticket. He has said he won’t seek a third term in North Dakota, and left the door open to returning to the private sector.

Trump Counterweight

Burgum’s allies paint him as a savvy business executive whose attention to detail and deep understanding of energy, agriculture and tech could help advance the former president’s ambitious second-term agenda. His supporters say he also offers the promise of a pragmatic, approachable second-in-command who would be a counterweight to Trump’s more inflammatory tendencies — qualities that could help persuade independent voters and donors to support the Republican ticket.

“He’s not a fire-breather, but he is a conservative,” said Bruce Rastetter, founder and executive chairman of Summit Agricultural Group, which has a subsidiary that’s working to build a carbon dioxide pipeline in the state. “For a broad section of Republicans that didn’t maybe vote for Trump, he would come across as a guy that you’d feel good” supporting.

In recent months, Burgum has participated alongside the former president in several high-dollar fundraisers on the West Coast and in Texas. Burgum convened with donors who paid $25,000 to ask him a question in a Zoom fundraiser for Trump. He has also made Trump’s case with voters, such as last month, when he made a visit to Michigan to discuss grocery prices with residents.

Though Burgum, a trained cowboy, is known for sporting blue jeans and boots, Rastetter noted he’s recently swapped his wardrobe to include ties and slacks as his surrogacy has ramped up.

Burgum’s supporters for a spot on the Trump ticket highlight the assets they think set him apart from other contenders, focusing on his business background and experience running a state rich in oil and agricultural commodities. Burgum’s rural roots may make him a powerful ambassador to swing voters in Michigan, Wisconsin and western Pennsylvania.

Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor and chief executive officer of Canary Drilling Services, said he thinks of Burgum as “a secret weapon in the Midwest.”

“Governor Burgum is not going to embarrass Donald Trump, and, more importantly, he’s not going to overshadow Donald Trump,” Eberhart said. “But at the same time, he’s ready to be president.”

Former Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, who has known Burgum for years in his official capacity as well as work on the Summit pipeline, said he was trying to schedule a call with Trump to advocate for Burgum as vice president.

Several former Trump administration officials and strategists also have named Burgum as a possible energy secretary or White House chief of staff.

Energy Expertise

As governor, executives say Burgum has struck a business-friendly tone in meetings, asking how he could welcome them in the state. His mantra, “innovate, not regulate,” has been apparent in his approach to policy and government oversight – and dovetails with Trump’s own attitudes.

Burgum’s deep familiarity with energy was on display during a May luncheon and roundtable with oil and gas executives in Houston. At a May rally in New Jersey, Trump praised Burgum’s expertise: “He made his money in technology, but he probably knows more about energy than anybody I know.”

It didn’t start out that way. North Dakota is the nation’s third-biggest producer of crude, with its prolific Bakken and Three Forks formations beckoning a surge of oil companies and workers into the state more than a decade ago. When Burgum became governor in December 2016, the sector was unfamiliar turf — and some in the industry were wary, said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance.

But Burgum assuaged those concerns by meeting with industry and studying up. He “was able to take that business acumen and apply it to oil and gas issues,” Sgamma said.

Burgum also toiled late at night before speeches to industry groups, reaching a level of expertise usually found in the oilfield — not a governor’s mansion — said Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council.

Burgum himself campaigned during the primary on promises to unleash American energy production, while criticizing climate policies he said threaten to deepen US reliance on Chinese technology. But as governor, Burgum has had more nuance. He embraced a policy that could be seen delivering a fatal blow to fossil fuels — reaching carbon neutrality by 2030 — and unveiled his pitch at an oil conference.

North Dakota Senator Kevin Cramer called it an act of courage, taking a “big platform to bring it right into the lion’s den.” He said Burgum’s policy chops and experience as both a businessman and governor make him an appealing option for the GOP ticket, while his personality offers a contrast to Trump’s bombast.

“He provides a calming, if you will, because of his ability to dive deep into the policies,” Cramer said. “Donald Trump doesn’t need help selling the message to the public, to the voter, to the workers. But what Doug Burgum does is he explains it to Wall Street.”

(Updated with Trump’s schedule in eighth paragraph. A prior version of the story was corrected to remove an inaccurate reference to Trump giving a nickname to the governor.)

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