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Published September 01 2012

Forum editorial: ND politics no longer ‘different’

The news last week that the National Republican Senatorial Committee will redirect $3 million from the Senate race in Missouri to North Dakota’s hotly contested Senate race is another indication that political advertising expenditures in North Dakota likely will shatter records. The commitment of money by political parties, the individual campaigns of Republican Rick Berg and Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, and the ad buys by several partisan super PACs constitute an unprecedented phenomenon in North Dakota politics.

What it cooks down to is this: We ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

The Heitkamp-Berg race has taken on national prominence because political control of the U.S. Senate is at stake. A pickup of just a few seats for Republicans could shift control from Democrats. However, a Republican candidate self-destructed in Missouri; the Republican incumbent in Massachusetts is in a very tight tilt; the contest in Maine to fill a retiring Republican senator’s seat is no guarantee for Republicans.

North Dakota has become a player because every credible poll shows Heitkamp and Berg are in a neck-and-neck race. That’s a surprising turnaround – it was assumed by political observers that Berg was a sure winner, given his success two years ago in easily knocking off veteran Democratic Congressman Earl Pomeroy. Indeed, early polls showed Berg comfortably ahead of Heitkamp, a former two-term state attorney general.

But as the Heitkamp campaign tooled up, the gap closed. The national parties and others with money to spend have taken notice. Thus, the influx of millions of dollars on both sides will fund a blitz of advertising the likes of which North Dakotans have not seen before.

It won’t be nice. It’s already headed for the down-and-dirty side of politics. The independent PACs and similar partisan groups likely will spend more than the individual campaigns and political parties. Aligned but not directly associated with the Berg or Heitkamp campaigns, these groups have changed the tenor of the contest from moderately respectful to brazenly dishonest. Regrettably, neither candidate has chosen to sufficiently repudiate the big-money, unaccountable interlopers.

That’s the way of politics these days, even in North Dakota, where for a long time residents clung to the fiction that “we’re better than that.” We’re not. North Dakota campaigns have embraced – or tacitly approved – a style of destructive politics that is routine in other places. The campaign for the U.S. Senate proves it.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.