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Published September 29 2012

On-air advantage in Senate battle?

FARGO - As farmers mingled and salivated over new tractors at the recent Big Iron event in West Fargo, U.S. Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp stood in front of a roomful of reporters in Schollander Pavilion and blasted her Republican opponent for not being able to convince House leadership to call a vote on the farm bill.

“He can move this farm bill forward without one Democratic vote,” she said.

Six days later, like an echo, her outspoken younger brother, KFGO-AM 790 radio talk-show host Joel Heitkamp, used the last 30 seconds of his interview with U.S. Rep Collin Peterson to hammer home the same message.

“They don’t need one Democratic vote to get this done,” he said, his words bouncing to a statewide audience as they do every weekday on his top-rated “News & Views” program.

In one of the nation’s most closely watched races – one that could decide the balance of the Senate – Heidi Heitkamp has something her foe doesn’t: a politically aligned family member with a big microphone and a voice to match.

But it’s not clear that the on-air support gives the Democrat an advantage in the race against U.S. Rep. Rick Berg, a Republican.

The former North Dakota attorney general and her red-haired brother said they don’t believe it does, and neither does the chairwoman of the political science department at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

“I really don’t think it’ll make much difference,” Barbara Headrick said, noting those who listen to political talk radio “usually come in with opinions.”

Berg, who has consistently turned down Joel Heitkamp’s offers to be a guest on his show, had little to say on the issue when his campaign was contacted last week.

“My only position is that Joel Heitkamp is doing what presumably any other good brother would do, and that’s support his sister,” said Chris Van Guilder, Berg’s campaign spokesman.

Joel Heitkamp is only one limb on a large family tree supporting his sister’s campaign. The Heitkamp siblings – seven of them born within nine years – all have played a role, Heidi Heitkamp said.

“Where the focus I think sometimes gets on Joel and me, that’s not how we see it in our family,” she said.

Role in campaign

Nevertheless, the focus was on the two siblings when both were being considered as potential candidates for the Senate race. Both said they encouraged the other to run.

Heidi Heitkamp ultimately declared her candidacy last November, and Joel Heitkamp has been an involved supporter, urging her to hire campaign manager Tessa Gould, donating $2,750 to her campaign and making appearances on her behalf, including walking in summer parades.

“I’ll do whatever I can in my private time to help Heidi,” he said.

It’s nothing new for the 50-year-old, who is six years younger than Heidi Heitkamp. When a bout with breast cancer hampered her unsuccessful bid for governor in 2000, he “basically stepped in and was the candidate for me” during a two- to three-week period when she couldn’t campaign, she said.

“Compared to the race for governor, Joel’s involvement in this campaign has really been very minimal,” she said.

Joel Heitkamp said his sister’s campaign is “a really tight ship,” and he doesn’t have much interaction with it. He said he doesn’t know most of her campaign staffers and doesn’t keep track of her schedule, instead relying on sisters Holly Heitkamp and Julie Prochnow to tell him where he needs to be.

“And I tend to do what they tell me to do because I’m afraid of both of them,” he said.

Heidi Heitkamp said her other sisters also are helping with the campaign, Thomasine Heitkamp in Grand Forks and Melanie Heitkamp in Bismarck. Brother Dennis, the oldest of the seven, also is coming from California to assist on the ground, she said.

It’s a familiar routine for the close siblings, who spent Labor Day at the family cabin next to Joel Heitkamp’s house on Lake Elsie in Richland County.

“From my very first races, it’s always been lots of help, and I think in some ways can kind of overwhelm a campaign manager and overwhelm the state with all the Heitkamps,” Heidi Heitkamp said, laughing.

But, like any family, they don’t always agree.

Heidi Heitkamp said she occasionally hears from her younger brother that she’s not hitting Berg hard enough on his voting record, a criticism Joel Heitkamp also levied against U.S. Rep. Earl Pomeroy when he failed to fend off Berg’s challenge in the 2010 House race.

But she said the feedback is no more than what his radio listeners hear.

Headrick, who said she’s a frequent listener of “News & Views,” has noticed the on-air criticism.

“If you actually listen to him, he actually does criticize her, not infrequently, if he thinks she’s not aggressive enough, for example. That’s been one of his main themes in the last month or so,” she said.

Joel Heitkamp said his sister’s reaction to his advice usually is, “ ‘I’ll run my campaign the way I want to run my campaign. You do your talk show the way you want to do your talk show.’ In other words, she talks to me like any big sister would.”

Keeping things fair

“News & Views,” which also is carried by stations in Bismarck and Minot, dominated its 8:30 to 11 a.m. slot in the Fargo-Moorhead metro and regional markets last spring with average shares of 21.8 percent and 13.3 percent, respectively, according to Arbitron ratings provided by the station.

From the launch of his sister’s campaign, Joel Heitkamp vowed to give both candidates equal access to the show as required by federal law.

He said KFGO began keeping a log of Heidi Heitkamp’s appearances and gave Berg equal opportunity. Berg has routinely turned down those offers, though he did go on recently with a guest host.

“In fairness to Rick Berg … we don’t like each other,” said Joel Heitkamp, who served in the state Senate from 1994 to 2007 while Berg was in the state House. “We don’t get along that well. We didn’t as legislators. We didn’t work very well together. In fact, we didn’t work together. So, it’s not some big surprise that he doesn’t find himself being comfortable on my show.”

Heitkamp said he’s recently been trying to find a surrogate to come on his show and offer a conservative viewpoint in place of Berg.

As operations manager for Radio Fargo-Moorhead, which counts KFGO as its flagship, Joel Heitkamp said he doesn’t believe his open support for his sister has influenced the station’s news coverage.

“They do as they see fit, without me going in there and telling them anything because if I did … they’d kick my butt out of there so quick it’d be unbelievable,” he said.

KFGO News Director Paul Jurgens said his boss “has not attempted to sway us in any way, and he better not try.”

The station hasn’t received any complaints of bias in its coverage of the race, Jurgens said, noting he and Heitkamp discussed early on the need to keep news operations separate.

“There are times that he probably knows things that we’d like to know, and he hasn’t told us and that’s just fine,” Jurgens said. “We’d rather come up with it on our own.”

Advantage or not?

Heidi Heitkamp said she doesn’t believe having her brother behind a microphone with a statewide audience gives her an advantage over Berg.

“Rick Berg has the ability to go on that radio show, sit down and do exactly what I’m doing,” she said.

As for the effect of her brother’s radio presence on her campaign, “I think some people would say it’s an advantage and a disadvantage,” she said.

“Obviously people don’t really separate the two of us, and so his opinions somehow end up being my opinions, and I think he suffers from that, as well,” she said.

She also noted that, prior to announcing her candidacy, she did a fair amount of talk radio, filling in for her brother and KFGO host Mike McFeely.

“And so, you know, I think people are used to hearing me on the radio,” she said.

Asked whether he believes he could be a factor in swinging undecided voters his sister’s way, Joel Heitkamp said, “I don’t think it’s ever wise to confuse ratings with popularity.

“I’m the highest-rated talk show in North Dakota, I get that. And I’m on statewide, I get that as well,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean everybody listens to me because they like me, and it doesn’t mean that everybody listens to me because they agree with me.”

Fargo right-wing radio host Scott Hennen, a Berg supporter whose show airs on AM-1100 The Flag, said Joel Heitkamp is a “consistent cheerleader” for the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party, yet its standing in the state “has never been worse.”

Hennen points to past races, most notably the Berg-Pomeroy race of 2010, as proof of Heitkamp’s inability to swing voters his party’s way.

“The agenda’s obvious. The influence is overstated, given the facts,” he said.

Joel Heitkamp said he doesn’t believe a talk show host can swing an election.

“I don’t believe it’s any huge advantage,” he said, “and if all I was was a campaign piece for my sister, my ratings would plummet.”

Headrick said she, too, doesn’t think Joel Heitkamp’s radio show will have much impact on the race, which she believes hinges on how many right-leaning voters Heidi Heitkamp can sway her way and whether Berg’s efforts to tie her to President Barack Obama will be successful.

“As for how people react to it, he has a very big statewide audience, but I imagine he’s still reaching a fairly small part of the electorate, and that people’s minds who listen to a show like Joel’s are probably pretty much made up already, and so it’s probably not having that big of an impact overall,” she said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528