Why Doug Burgum is staying in a race he can afford to lose

Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota knows that many people, including powerful voices in his own party, think he should drop out of the Republican presidential primary, abandoning his quixotic bid so that momentum can gather behind challenger Donald J. Trump and eventually the president. Biden.

“This looks like they’re trying to do the voters’ job,” he said in an interview Saturday. But Mr. Burgum is committed to staying on the ballot in Iowa and New Hampshire, where he says he regularly meets people eager to vote for him. “They will decide how the field is narrowed, not some other group,” he said.

Mr. Burgum, 67, sat in a grand conference room, somewhere in the carpeted maze of the Las Vegas convention center, which was hosting a large gathering of Jewish donors. Less than an hour earlier, in an upstairs ballroom, former Vice President Mike Pence had dropped out of the race, giving in to the reality that he was short on votes and out of money.

Mr. Burgum’s reality is different in at least one critical way: Although he barely polls 1 percent in Iowa, his net worth is in the hundreds of millions. He has largely self-funded his campaign, lending it more than $12 million — an additional $3 million has come from donations, according to the most recent campaign filing.

He can afford to be quixotic. By the end of September, his campaign had spent $12.9 million – more than the campaigns of Nikki Haley, Chris Christie and Mr Pence combined. About a third of that time was spent on television advertising.

He is a testament to the power of private wealth to sustain a campaign and elevate a largely unknown, business-minded conservative from a largely rural American state to the national stage—or, at least, to the edge of the stage.

“I think he brings a perspective and experience that resonates with a lot of voters,” said Miles D. White, the former chairman and chief executive of Abbott Laboratories and a longtime friend of Mr. Burgum. “I don’t think the early process gives much opportunity to show that.”

Mr. White, who has given $2 million to a super PAC supporting Mr. Burgum, said Mr. Burgum’s financial resources mean he can stay and raise awareness of himself as a potential alternative to Mr. Trump beyond the confines of the debate stage.

“His biggest challenge is to be known across the country and to be known, which takes a lot of time, a lot of advertising, which again takes a lot of funding,” Mr. White said.

Mike Murphy, a longtime Republican strategist, said most of the candidates at this point were just helping Mr. Trump. On Monday, at editorial in The Bulwarkhe called on all but Ms. Haley, the former United Nations ambassador and governor of South Carolina, to drop out.

“I like Burgum,” Mr. Murphy said in an interview. “He is in a desperate fight with a margin of error in the poll. Because the stakes are so high with Trump, he has to step down.”

He added, “When your argument is, ‘Let me burn in Iowa, where I’ll cause collateral damage to others,’ you don’t have an argument.”

Mr. Burgum said he first sought the governorship in 2015 because he felt he could have more of an impact on North Dakota from Bismarck than from his private business. The same thing motivated him to run for president — but first he had to convince his 25-year-old son, he said, who was worried about the attention it might bring to his family.

Finally, his son told him, “You should run, because my friends would have someone to vote for, instead of voting against.” As he told the story, Mr. Burgum began to cry.

Friends from the business community also stepped in to support. A super PAC backing him, called Best of America, has taken in more than $11 million by the end of June from about two dozen wealthy supporters, including people connected to his business world.

“Everyone who has donated significantly so far has been someone who has known us for a long time,” Mr. Burgum said. “Because they’re like, OK, this is the real thing.”

Mr. Burgum entered the race in June on a platform that focused on his economic acumen and business record as a software executive, as well as his conservative status as governor.

“People crave leadership, and leadership for them doesn’t mean the life they spent as a career politician in North Dakota,” he said. “It means someone who has the characteristics of integrity and honesty. Someone you can trust and someone who is willing to take risks, someone who can take a leap and not know where it will land.”

He added of his competitors, “Just in fact, I’ve created more jobs than everyone else on that stage combined, in the private sector.”

Since entering the race, Mr. Burgum has spent a lot of money to introduce himself to voters and gain support.

In early nominating states, Mr. Burgum’s business bona fides, horsemanship and distinctive eyebrows were a fixture on television, set against the scenic backdrop of North Dakota — he said he sees his campaign in part as an opportunity to introduce his state to the rest of the country.

(As for the eyebrows, Mr. Burgum attributes them to his mother’s side of the family and acknowledges an uncanny resemblance to the comedian Eugene Levy. Along with his flowing mane of hair, they draw much attention in the campaign: “If the only people who voted were women over 75 or 80 years, then we would lock it in,” he said.)

Burgum’s campaign bought $4.3 million in local and national advertising time, according to an analysis by AdImpact, a media monitoring firm. Since July, the super PAC backing him has bought nearly $13 million in advertising time.

The PAC’s ads describe him as “the only conservative business leader to run for president,” promising he can bring “small-town sanity back to Washington, DC.”

The super PAC’s ad spending is the fifth largest in the race, according to the AdImpact analysis, which also includes ad spending in the coming weeks. Never Back Down, a super PAC supporting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, spent $35.6 million. A super PAC for Mr. Trump spent $27.6 million; one for Ms. Haley, $22.8 million; and one for Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, $19.8 million.

Before the first debate in late August, Mr. Burgum’s campaign offered $20 gift cards to anyone who donated a dollar to his campaign so he could reach the threshold of 40,000 individual donors to earn a spot on stage.

The gambit worked. Then, on the day of the debate, he tore his Achilles tendon playing basketball with his assistants. He did show up though. Two months later, he still uses a knee scooter to get around.

There’s a big hurdle ahead: Although Mr. Burgum’s campaign has the number of donors it needs, it has not yet reached the Republican National Committee’s threshold for the third GOP debate, next week in Miami.

He described the threshold as an arbitrary limit set by the party leadership. “They might get a pass, but they might not produce what Iowa or New Hampshire would produce, where people are actually putting in the time,” he said.

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