BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Hustling to finish his wheat harvest, farmer Mark Nesheim was repairing his combine recently when his cellphone rang. The caller wanted to know if Nesheim would support Republican candidates in November, particularly the North Dakota GOP’s Senate hopeful.
In much of the nation, it would have been just another campaign call in a busy election season. But in North Dakota, the inquiry was a rare intrusion of competitive politics into everyday life. Nesheim was annoyed.
“I don’t tell anybody. I’m an independent,” he said, explaining that the unwelcome questions put “three checks against” the candidate, Rick Berg.
Voters here haven’t seen a tight Senate race in more than a quarter of a century. As the contest intensifies between Berg and his Democratic foe, Heidi Heitkamp, many people are getting their first real taste of the untrammeled campaigning that has long been common in larger states.
When Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad announced last year that he would not seek re-election, North Dakota assumed a leading role in the battle for control of the Senate. Republicans need to gain four seats. The GOP already dominates the North Dakota Capitol, holding most statewide offices and two-thirds majorities in the Legislature.
But Heitkamp, a former state attorney general and tax commissioner who is running her sixth statewide campaign, has been even with Berg, a freshman congressman who has run only one statewide race — his defeat of incumbent Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy two years ago.
The wide-open race has attracted heaps of campaign cash. Political organizations such as American Crossroads, a group founded by Karl Rove, and Majority PAC, which supports Democratic Senate candidates, have spent more than $3.1 million on advertising in the North Dakota race.
That’s close to $6 for every North Dakotan of voting age — with the election still more than two months away.
“This is how elections work in most of the rest of the country,” said Mark Jendrysik, chairman of the University of North Dakota’s political science department. “This is kind of the shape of things to come in American elections. Lots of untraceable money. Lots of spending. It’s like an arms race.”
The state’s last competitive Senate race was in 1986, when Conrad first won his seat by 2,135 votes, beating incumbent Republican Sen. Mark Andrews.
Berg and Heitkamp are on pace to wage the most expensive Senate election in North Dakota history. The two candidates themselves raised $6 million and spent $3.2 million through June, according to disclosure forms. Berg alone spent $1.7 million.
Jendrysik expects the money mountain to grow even taller, possibly approaching $20 million.
Much of the money is being channeled into television spots. Political spending records from the KX Network, a group of CBS television stations in western North Dakota, show the intensity of advertising efforts by the campaigns and outside groups. The network ran 19 30-second advertisements focused on the Senate race on the evening of Aug. 28.
In most ads, Heitkamp is hammered as a stooge for President Barack Obama and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who are portrayed as enemies of oil exploration and coal mining, which are significant industries in North Dakota.
Anti-Berg ads accuse him of wanting to cut spending on Medicare and farm subsidies, and claim that Berg has “gone Washington,” a gibe the incumbent Republican congressman himself used against Pomeroy in 2010.
Delwin Petrick, who farms near Elgin, southwest of Bismarck, supports Heitkamp but is already weary of the ad warfare that aims to convince voters that each candidate is an agent of political ruin.
“They just turn me off, basically,” Petrick said. “Most of the time when I see something that’s lies on there, I’ll vote for the other candidate.”
He’s not the only one questioning the air war. Some of the outside advertising has prompted a backlash, too.
In July, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce ad accusing Heitkamp of backtracking on her support of the new federal health care law was disavowed by Andy Peterson, president of the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce, who said the state organization was staying out of the Senate campaign.
“We’re not participating in this or endorsing their action,” Peterson told KFGO Radio in Fargo in July. “We made a conscious decision not to be involved.”
Two years ago, North Dakotans got a preview of the advertising barrage when Berg thwarted Pomeroy’s bid for a 10th term in Congress. Outside groups spent almost $3 million, while the candidates themselves spent $5.8 million.
Pomeroy believes spending by health insurers angered by his 2009 vote in favor of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul law helped seal his fate.
Berg and Heitkamp doubt whether the outside advertising is changing voters’ minds.
“At the end of the day, it’s a grassroots campaign that has the biggest impact on the outcome,” Berg said.
Heitkamp said she didn’t like any of the outside advertising, including ads supporting her own candidacy.
“I’m not convinced that this is all that effective, especially when it goes against what people think they know about the candidate,” Heitkamp said. “People say, ‘Well, I know her, or I know him, and I don’t believe any of that.’”
Nesheim said neither candidate is waging the kind of race he wants to see.
“Their campaign, it stinks,” he said. “They aren’t telling the people … what they can do in the Senate to help us. All they’re doing is digging at each other. That absolutely goes against my better judgment in voting for anybody.”
More Related Stories
- Army weapons engineer tied to white nationalist organizations
- Ted Cruz against the world
- Louie Gohmert: Women should be forced to carry nonviable pregnancies to term
- Could hackers destroy the U.S. power grid?
- David Vitter's hypocritical, punitive, horrible new amendment
- Democrats may be even worse than Republicans at regulating Wall Street
- Eric Holder versus journalism
- A progressive defense of drones
- There's no substitute for government disaster relief
- Holder signed off on search warrant for reporter
- Mississippi could begin prosecuting women for miscarriages
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
- Closing Gitmo is not enough
- Murkowski: Palin too disengaged to run for Senate
- In IRS scandal, new GOP tactic is ignorance
- Code Pink activist berates Obama at national security speech
- Cuomo: "Shame on us" if New York City elects Weiner
- Coburn calls questions about tornado aid "typical Washington B.S."
- Conspiracy theorists clash over London attack
- Voting is not a right
- Destroying the planet for record profits
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11