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Published March 28 2012

Berg spending freely on TV commercials

FARGO – Despite months of being viewed as a lock for the Republican endorsement, Rep. Rick Berg has spent at least $347,000 on TV ads for his U.S. Senate campaign since he first hit North Dakota’s airwaves five weeks ago.

In comparison, Republican challenger Duane Sand spent just $9,635 in the six weeks his campaign ads have aired, according to The Forum’s review of political files at local TV stations and major cable providers across the state.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp hasn’t aired TV ads yet.

Berg said he wants to get his message out to voters early because of the competitive campaign season ahead.

“The election this November will have a direct impact on the future of our country,” Berg said last week. “It’s important that I share with voters where I stand on issues … and how I will bring the North Dakota way to the United States Senate.”

But Sand says such an outpouring of cash early on is strange, especially for a pseudo-incumbent who has been considered a shoe-in for the endorsement.

“I’d rather be me than Rick right now,” Sand said last week, adding that Berg’s statewide ad blitzes “absolutely” demonstrate his sense of vulnerability, which Sand said some internal polls also reflect.

However, Eric Raile, North Dakota State University political science professor, said there are plenty of strategic reasons why Berg would launch an aggressive and costly ad campaign so soon.

Establishing early dominance on the TV airwaves can help candidates direct the narrative of a race, Raile said – a potentially valuable advantage in a hotly contested campaign.

“Additionally, some people take the position that you might as well spend campaign money if it is available,” Raile said. “Early spending by a well-known candidate often signals that the candidate believes she or he can continue to raise substantial funds throughout the course of the campaign.”

Berg reported nearly $1.4 million in cash on hand at the end of 2011, meaning statewide ad buys have cost him 25 percent of his existing war chest to date.

“Advertising before the state convention is not out of the ordinary for North Dakota candidates,” Berg pointed out, citing Ed Schafer’s and John Hoeven’s gubernatorial campaigns as examples.

In 2010, Berg also launched ads before the state convention, when the House endorsement was also contested.

Raile said Sand’s theory of vulnerability is plausible, though.

“Spending early … is one strategy for deflecting criticism and shoring up vulnerabilities,” Raile said. “Many close races in recent election cycles have attracted huge sums of money. I would expect a barrage of advertising if the race is close.”

The North Dakota GOP’s state nominating convention will be held this weekend in Bismarck.

Up until Tuesday, Berg had expected to face a contested nomination against Sand. However, Sand now plans to skip the convention, instead pinning his chances on the statewide June primary.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541