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Published October 31 2012

Political ad spending in North Dakota draws record tab

FARGO – After falling under siege from nonstop political advertisements for months on end, most of us might rather have had the $32.

That’s about how much federal candidates and the independent political action committees supporting them – or more often, opposing them – have spent on advertising for each eligible voter in North Dakota this election season.

The total bill for print, broadcast and online advertising: a hefty $17 million.

It’s a staggering total for the state, particularly the independent spending, said Robert Wood, an associate professor of political science at the University of North Dakota.

“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” he said.

But he also said it’s not an overwhelming figure in the grand scheme of spending elsewhere.

More than $16 million of the ad spending in the state has gone toward the U.S. Senate race between Republican Rick Berg and Democrat Heidi Heitkamp. And the bulk of that money – $12.3 million – has come from PACs, the vast majority of it for attack ads.

Wood said the flood of money comes from a combination of an open seat, a national slugfest for control of the U.S. Senate and recent court rulings that loosened restrictions on independent expenditures.

“The rules have changed,” he said. “The balance of outside money is absolutely different.”

National groups like the Senate campaign PACs of the Democratic and Republican parties have poured resources into the Berg-Heitkamp race because it’s one of perhaps 10 truly competitive Senate races nationwide.

Those groups have far outspent the campaigns themselves, which have been responsible for less than a quarter of the ad dollars spent to date.

The PAC spending, which is updated on a rolling basis, is complete through Monday. The campaign totals are complete through the final quarterly reports filed by the campaigns before the election.

The overall totals do not include spending on state races like the gubernatorial campaign or for the Public Service Commission.

Advertising is just part of the overall spending pie, making up just half the combined spending of Berg’s and Heitkamp’s campaigns.

The wealth of resources allows campaigns to pour money into many different fronts, like get-out-the-vote efforts, as well as ads, said Mark Jendrysik, chairman of the department of public administration and political science at UND.

“If you have the money, you try do both at the same time,” he said.

The spending in the North Dakota races has been outsized for the state, which hasn’t seen a campaign as hotly contested as the Senate race for some time.

But in terms of total dollars, it’s hardly earth-shattering. Candidates and PACs have spent nearly

$40 million on Montana’s tight U.S. Senate race. Michele Bachmann’s U.S. House campaign in Minnesota has spent more than $19 million on its own.

Wood said the glut of spending will likely fade in the absence of a race as close or as high-profile as Berg-Heitkamp.

“It’s probably unlikely that we would see this kind of outside spending coming in in future races,” he said.

Biggest spending groups

• Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee: $2,824,735 ($1,922,164 against Rick Berg, $832,571 for Heidi Heitkamp)

• National Republican Senatorial Committee: $2,642,668 ($2,042,668 against Heitkamp, $600,805 for Berg)

• Majority PAC: $2,674,623 (against Berg)

• Crossroads GPS: $1,300,648 ($1,020,382 against Heitkamp, $280,266 for Berg)

• Patriot Majority USA: $675,034 against Berg

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502