Doug Burgum Trying to Buy His Way Into the Debates

The North Dakota governor really, really wants to be on TV.

NPR (“Doug Burgum is offering $20 to people donating $1 to his campaign. Is that legal?“):

Looking to make a splash in the crowded pool of Republican presidential contenders, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum is offering an unusual deal to donors: Anyone who sends a donation of at least $1 will get a $20 gift card in return.

The campaign’s offer is good for the first 50,000 donors — and is an unconventional bid to meet the fundraising thresholds required to be onstage for next month’s Republican primary debate.

In this case, it’s not the dollar amount of donations that matters; it’s the number of donors. To participate in the debate, candidates must have at least 40,000 donors. They also have to bring in donations from 200 or more donors in at least 20 states.

The rules create “some unusual incentives” for quickly building a wide donor base, Nick Bauroth, who chairs the political science department at North Dakota State University, told NPR.

Whether this is legal is questionable but we’ll get to that. But it’s clearly a violation of the spirit of the rules, which are in place to ensure that only candidates with at least some modicum of national support get on the stage.

Beyond that, it’s just kind of pathetic. I get that running for President is what governors and Senators do. Burgum has been a successful governor and this is the logical next step. But the fact that neither Steven Taylor nor I, who pay a wee bit more attention to these things than the average American, had never heard of this guy before he threw his hat into the ring shows how quixotic the bid is. It’s one thing to give it the old college try. But actually paying people off the donate money is just sad.

Oddly, some folks are applauding the strategy.

“This offer could cost Burgum up to a million dollars, but well worth it if he gets on the main stage” at the debate, Bauroth added. Also worth remembering: Burgum is a billionaire.

Burgum’s gift card strategy is a sign that his long-shot campaign sees the debate in Milwaukee as a potential make-or-break moment.

“Depending on the outcome, it will either be viewed as genius or the dumbest political move in history,” Patricia Crouse, a political science and legal studies professor at the University of New Haven, told NPR.

Burgum probably couldn’t tell you within several million dollars how much liquidity he has, so I’ll grant that the expenditure is modest. And it’s sort of like buying advertising. But, again, the whole point of this entry requirement is to weed out candidates without some modicum of organic support outside their own constituency.

Participating in the debate would raise Burgum’s profile — something his unique offer is already accomplishing, drawing stories by FWIWAxiosThe New York Times and other national media outlets.

The online donation process itself could expand Burgum’s base: When people donate, the campaign gleans their email and street addresses. Anyone who adds a phone number also agrees to receive phone calls and text messages.

I’m not sure that’s worth $19 to me. But it’s a technique, I guess, for building a list.

As to NPR’s titular question:

“My immediate reaction to this scheme is a concern that it violates the federal prohibition on straw donors,” Michael S. Kang, a professor at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, told NPR.

“It’s illegal to reimburse another person for their campaign contribution. Giving a donor a $20 gift card for donating seems a bit like that.”

A bit? It’s exactly that.

Crouse says that in her view, the practice might not be illegal, “but from my perspective, it’s a bit unethical.” Burgum isn’t technically “buying” votes, she noted: “He is simply buying the right to compete.”

The threshold for competing on the debate stage on Aug. 23 is set by the Republican National Committee, which hopes to winnow a wide field of 2024 presidential hopefuls down to a manageable group.

“Burgum is competing within the Republican primary and is just trying to game the debate qualification rules,” Kang said, adding, “The scheme does test the limits of current law.”

When contacted by NPR, a Federal Election Commission representative declined to comment on the legality of Burgum’s offer, saying the agency “is unable to comment on specific activities, nor may we speculate on matters that may have the potential to come before the agency.”

To reiterate a point Steven makes here repeatedly, including in his post about Burgum joining the race, this couldn’t happen if our political parties weren’t so weak. By rights, the RNC would contact Burgum this morning and tell him that this little stunt disqualifies him from the debates. I suspect they will not.

Indeed, Burgum has demonstrated the weakness of the party system by getting as far as he has:

He’s a former political outsider who surprised many in 2016 when he won the race to become his home state’s governor. That year, Burgum had placed third in the running for the Republican convention’s endorsement — but he won the party primary just two months later.

“In the past, the party endorsement decided the matter,” Bauroth said, but Burgum overturned that norm. He was reelected in 2020.

Burgum now hopes to repeat his odds-defying performance, facing off against politicians from more politically influential states, including a former president and former vice president. As before, he has shown a willingness to dip into his private wealth to fuel his campaign.

I don’t know enough about Burgum’s stewardship of North Dakota to have an opinion as to whether he would be a good President. (Although the fact that the county I live in has roughly one and a half times as many people and infinitely more diversity than his state is a big red flag.) But this gambit does little to change my view that this is a run for ego rather than a serious bid for the office.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jen says:

    “It’s illegal to reimburse another person for their campaign contribution.”

    This was exactly my thought yesterday when I saw this news story. You can’t reimburse a person for a contribution, and you cannot provide a thing of value in exchange for a vote. These are the most basic rules and if this is allowed, we are going to be headed to a pretty dark period in campaigning because this is the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent.

    The FEC needs to shut this sh!t down, like yesterday.

  2. MarkedMan says:

    It sure seems illegal but who cares? The Republicans have crippled the FEC. Violated the spirit? Unethical? C’mon, we’re talking about the frickin’ Republican primary! The real issue is that Burgum isn’t who the Republican Party is today. With only the winner take all primary/caucus system deciding the nominee, the Republican Party is the committed base, and that base is perfectly represented by Trump. Donald J. Trump is the Republican Party, he’s who they are today and who they have been since the Tea Party essentially won a decade and a half ago. Unless Trump drops out or dies, every other candidate is meaningless.

  3. Sleeping Dog says:


    It’ll take 3 years for the FEC to come to a vote that will end in a tie.

  4. gVOR10 says:

    I was born in ND, family moved east when I was twelve. And I still have family in that part of the world, albeit mostly across the river in MN. So I pay some marginal attention, at least to the extent that if I see a ND story I read it.

    Burgum is a minor tech bro. Like DeUseless he inherited a growing state economy, albeit based on resource extraction rather than tourism. He figured out how to play faux populism. In other words he’s a replacement level GOP pol.

  5. CSK says:

    Well, Burgum’s second and final term as a governor ends on December 15, 2024, so I suppose he’s looking around for something else to occupy his time.

  6. MarkedMan says:

    @gVOR10: Hah! We should start rating a lot more people with baseball’s WAR (Wins Above Replacement)! I suspect most congress critters would be solidly in the “makes no difference category”. And we could pick a specific Senator and Rep to be the “replacement-level player: a player who may be added to the team for minimal cost and effort”. Any noms?

  7. CSK says:

    Nothing happened to me, nor, I assume, Jen, Sleeping Dog and Daryl, but it was pretty awful in Vermont:

  8. CSK says:


    Dammit, I meant to put this in the Open Forum. Sorry.

  9. Kurtz says:

    @CSK: @CSK:

    I only care about the welfare of the regulars if the update is posted in the correct forum.

  10. CSK says:



  11. anjin-san says:

    Getting attention is more or less the point of modern Republican politics. This is just a logical extension…