Doug Burgum is Trump’s Likely VP Choice.  Here’s Why

Burgum with President Donald Trump and Jared Polis in May 2020. Photograph Source: The White House – Public Domain

There are two, maybe three, good reasons to believe that Donald Trump will choose North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum as his vice-presidential running mate over more popular MAGA-oriented choices like Ohio Senator J.D. Vance or Florida senator Marco Rubio, whose Cuban-American working class roots might appeal to Hispanics.

First, and foremost, because Burgum appears to have no presidential aspirations of his own – not yet – and has never criticized the Donalad, as both Vance and Rubio have.  Rubio’s attacks on Trump as “unfit” for the presidency date to his own ill-fated run for the GOP nomination back in 2016.  Vance’s savaging of the former president is more recent and pre-dates his own run for public office two years ago.

But Vance did an about-face when he decided to compete for the Ohio Senate in 2022, and found in Trump a powerful ally to win his party’s nomination.  Trump, looking for acolytes, willingly accepted Vance’s obsequious embrace, with both men began something akin to a love affair, with Vance accepting the role of MAGA mentee, the two men touting their rhetorical embrace of anti-Big Union working class populism and economic nationalism.

Vance’s general election opponent, Rep. Tim Ryan, was no slouch, having served several consecutive terms in a district representing Youngstown, one of the cradles of American manufacturing  The two men blamed each other’s party for sending factories and jobs overseas but Vance, embracing the “America First” agenda and depicting Ryan as a “globalist,” got the upper hand.  It didn’t hurt tha Vance was well-known to voters, including many Democrats, as the author of an immensely popular novel, Hillbilly Elegy, depicting his own hardscrabble upbringing in Appalachia, or that Ryan had dared to challenge Nancy pelosi for the Democratic party leadership in 2020, earning her wrath and costing him campaign funding and support.

Vance was the underdog but Ohio swing voters swung his way in the end, giving him a 7-point victory.  Many voters also were concerned that the state should not have two Democratic senators. Retiring senator Rob Portman was a GOP moderate, and to many it made sense that Vance, who harped on high grocery and gas prices under Biden’s leadership and exuded passion on the stomp, be given a shot over the stolid and but somewhat lackluster Ryan. who was saddled with Biden’s record.

The arguments for Vance for Trump’s VP are strong – to some.  Though Ohio is no longer considered a presidential battleground, neighboring Pennsylvania, as well as Wisconsin and Michigan, surely are. And Vance is more than a generation younger than Trump, and seems to represent the party’s future appeal not just to White working class voters but to youth.  But there are lingering concerns among elements of the GOP business community that Vance’s “populism” may go just a bit too far.  While many on the left have exposed Vance’s elite hedge fund connections that belie his avowed embrace of the common man, Vance doesn’t always sound — or act – like a traditional Big Business conservative.  Before he reached the Senate, he publicly opposed the tax cuts contained in Trump’s signature 2017 legislation, and in the Senate, he has often tried to work across the aisle, expressing considerable skepticism that Corporate America has the voter’s best interests at heart.

“If you look at the people that I’ve worked with most successfully, he told Politico earlier this year.  “It’s people who, even though they’re from the left, recognize that something’s pretty fundamentally broken about American society.  Elizabeth Warren — obviously, I disagree with her more than I agree with her — but she’s at least thinking deeply about what’s going on in the country and why things seem to be going off the rails.”

Those kinds of sentiments have rattled some of Trump’s corporate backers, including his top donors, who clearly favor Burgum over both Vance and Rubio.  Burgum, after all, is a huge supporter of “Drill Baby Drill,” the GOP plan for boosting oil and shale production to keep U.S. fossil fuel industry competitive and profitable and to reassure anxious American voters of the nation’s future energy “independence” Burgum only last month led a team of 19 GOP governors to sign a letter to President Biden “to pause the rhetorical and regulatory hostility towards traditional energy and to include states as active participants in further rulemaking,” and to allow free markets to flow and adopt an all-of-the-above homegrown energy plan that includes traditional and renewable energy sources.

“As governors, we are extremely concerned with the impacts your energy policies are having on households across our country and call on you to pursue an all-of-the-above energy approach that will promote homegrown energy that benefits all Americans,” the letter said.

Burgum’s appeal to Trump is also his successful life story.  He built his own personal fortune when he sold his home grown tech company Great Plains Software to Microsoft in 2001.  Forbes estimates his net worth at $100 million – less than Trump’s fortune, and even less than that of another young GOP upstart Vivek Ramaswamy.  Burgum started in his family’s grain elevator business in the 1950s and slowly worked his way up.  He got an engineering degree and then an MBA and even worked as a chimney sweep for a while to pay his bills.  But he struck it big when he partnered with two Fargo colleagues and took a chance – literally “bet the farm,” as he would say later – and plunged into the software i, where he found his niche. After they sold out to Microsoft, he kept making one successful stock deal after another before the opportunity to run for public office appeared.  Like Trump he’d never held elective office before – but it hardly mattered.

Trump clearly sees some of himself in Burgum, but in fact, Burgum could well claim to be a more authentic and consistent business success.  Trump inherited most of his wealth and real estate acumen and benefited from his rich father’s largesse, to say nothing of the elite wealth and media connections that Manhattan affords.  Burgum, while not quite the rags-to-riches poster boy, like Vance, has a highly appealing backstory from the hinterland that could appeal to Middle Americans especially.  North Dakota is rural farm country, too, as well as an emerging high tech center with major Pentagon base connections.  It has the nation’s fifth-highest GDP per capita, ranks second in energy production per capita and boasts one of the lowest unemployment rates – all of which makes Burgum, who first won election in 2016 in a landslide – and re-election in 2020 – a bit of a quiet GOP superstar, politically.

None of this matters much to Trump’s MAGA supporters, who clearly favor Vance. To them, Burgum is anathema, a Mike Pence type candidate meant to reassure traditional elites – and the deep pocket donors associated with the Koch Brothers.  The fact that Burgum as North Dakota governor has supported one of the nation’s more draconian abortion laws – restricting them to the first 6 weeks of gestation – isn’t likely to change many minds. Burgum, at 67, they suggest, is not the future of the GOP, which will be led by younger New Right firebrands like Vance who envision a total re-making of the Republican Party, with culture war issues like abortion and immigration dominating the conservative agenda.  Vance is also a fierce critic of foreign adventurism and support for NATO and has openly denounced US support for Ukraine against the Russian invasion and occupation, calling it a “boondoggle” and distraction from more pressing domestic policy concerns.

And what of Rubio?  Some have suggested he’s no longer even in the running, in part because his Florida residency conflicts with Trump’s and raises constitutional issues – namely the prohibition on both members of a single ticket hailing from the same state.  The issue is fungiu\ble, but would require Rubio to declare himself a resident elsewhere.  But Rubio is not an American Firster, and his Hispanic credentials are considered overrated, in part, because he represents Florida’s Cuban-American enclave not the far more populous Mexican or Puerto Rican communities that predominate elsewhere and that can title close races in the swing states in the Southwest or the Rust Belt.  It’s not even clear he has much name recognition – at least not with Hispanics – beyond the Sunshine State.

But his personal loyalty may also be suspect.  The last thing Trump wants or needs is a candidate that might be perceived as running for president – with his own agenda.  Rubio decided not to travel to New York to stand with Trump during his lengthy Manhattan hush money trial – as both Burgum and Vance did.  He’s pro-business, perhaps more so than Vance, and is perceived as an immigration moderate and could help sway suburban voters, especially women, it’s believed.  But he’s completely out of favor with hazard-core MAGA types, who suspect he’s prone to compromise across the board ideologically and with time, due to his personal ambition, could well morph into their greatest enemy – a Republican In Name Only (RINO).

What many on the left may be missing is that Trump, like many presidential candidates at this stage of a race – and indeed, Trump himself back in 2016 – are preparing to make the “Great Pivot.”  It’s at this point that candidates cease throwing red meat to their base and start moderating their image and their policy stances to close the deal with wavering moderates and undecideds.  Trump’s already denounced a federal ban on abortion and is even prepared to accommodate support for the abortion pill, which already accounts for well over half – some say, two-thirds – of the nation’s annual abortions.  Just as significant, he has publicly disavowed Project 2025, the Heritage Foundation’s draconian blueprint for GOP rule after the election and for decades hence.  The left will be tempted to complain that Trump is stuck with his past stances – and quite a few Heritage officials are associated actively with his campaign – but these rhetorical overtures, however disingenuous they seem, do matter to voters.  They can blunt the full force of Biden attacks on Trump as an election denier or xenophobe and give even Trump skeptics reason to cast their ballots for the former president.

This is why Burgum likely holds the upper hand.  Trump wants to project strong leadership domestically and abroad with energy as the fulcrum of his policy agenda, while contrasting that agenda sharply with Biden’s embrace of green energy and EVs – an agenda that is widely perceived to have stalled.  Even many working class voters outside the Big Trade unions have not rallied to the Biden agenda and even voters concerned about climate change – and more supportive of Biden – are fearful of America’s economic future.  Trump can project boosting US energy independence as part of his strategy for reversing inflation and even countering the rising influence of foreign powers like Iran, which he suggests have gained an upperhand abroad due to America’s own energy weakness, which he blames on Biden.

The facts surrounding US energy and Biden’s policies are far more mixed, but Biden’s messaging on energy is so poor (compared to Obama’s, for example) that voters may be tempted to buy into Trump’s America First flag-waving across the board (with some last-minute moderation on immigration) just as they did in 2016.

There’s likely a moral lesson here.  Rubio can brag about the GOP forging a “multi-racial, populist working class coalition,” based on some defections of Democratic base voters from the old Obama coalition of Hispanic, Blacks, youth and women – and there’s some patina of truth to his claim.  But in the final analysis, when push comes to shove, the GOP is still a decidedly pro-business party.  While rhetorical feints towards diversity – and the consideration of identity politics candidates like Rubio, Tim Scott or a host of Republican women like Kristin Noem or Ellen Stefanik in VP slots have gained favor with GOP candidates of late –White men still rule the Republican roost.

But then again, judging from the predilections of most Democratic voters, White men still rule Democratic roost, too.  With RFK, Jr. in the mix, the American public in 2024 is being treated to a troika of presidential candidates, all of them  White, male and over 70.  The Democrats can’t even get it together to support Kamala Harris as Biden’s heir apparent, despite the clear predilections of their base and their own sanctimonious defense of the need for greater racial and gender diversity in politics.  Biden, an emblem of the Old White liberal political establishment if there ever was one, has become a natural fall-back option, with even leading members of the entrenched Black Democratic political establishment still eager to promote him as their favorite foil to the Orange Man.

That being the case, Trump and the GOP can rest easy:  the choice of a Burgum is scarcely out of step with the thinking of the electorate.  Just ask the Democrats:  White men, it seems, are in again.  Trump has said all along that he wanted a VP that Americans could envision taking his place not just as an immediate successor in four years but in the event of his own sudden and unexpected departure before then. To a worried electorate, Burgum could well seem like a surer bet than Biden or Kamala, or even the other GOP contestants, who despite the advantage of youth, clearly lack Burgum’s track record of executive decision-making . He’s a successful two-term governor after all – the kind that Democrats themselves might have run if they had planned more carefully for Biden’s succession – last November, not now, when the options are few.

So, expect it to be Burgum,  and let the tears flow freely.  Why?   For the signal this dreary election is now sending – especially to our youth – who once deigned to think that Barack Obama’s remarkable ascendance was a harbinger of still greater things to come – and not just a passing interlude, or worse, an historical footnote.  Is America so broken inside that the country needs these old-fashioned symbols of patriarchal reassurance – and a bevy of traditional male figureheads – to keep us believing in ourselves and our future?  Fortune favors the brave. But there are no brave risk takers left in American politics these days.

Stewart Lawrence is a long-time Washington, DC-based policy consultant.  He can be reached at