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Published November 03 2012

Long road of North Dakota's US Senate race nears end

FARGO – It began before any candidates had even stepped into the race.

Just one week into 2011, out-of-state interests had already poured $90,000 into campaign ads for North Dakota’s U.S. Senate race.

Conservative groups geared up to attack Democratic incumbent Sen. Kent Conrad, while liberals mounted his defense.

Then, on Jan. 18, 2011, Conrad dropped a bombshell that tore the race wide open: After 24 years in the Senate, he would not seek re-election.

Now, after more than 21 months and $16 million in campaign spending, the Senate race has mutated into a monster of national importance, one of several Senate races expected to go down to the wire.

Thirty-three of the Senate’s 100 seats are up for grabs on Tuesday.

A win for North Dakota attorney general Heidi Heitkamp would help Democrats maintain their Senate advantage, which now sits at 53-47, including two independents who caucus with the party.

If U.S. Rep. Rick Berg emerges the victor, it could help tilt the balance of power to Republicans.

Victories by Berg and U.S. House candidate Kevin Cramer, who has led in the polls against Democrat Pam Gulleson, also would give North Dakota its first all-Republican congressional delegation since the 1950s, when the state still had two House seats.

Should Heitkamp win, she’ll head to the Senate to join Republican Sen. John Hoeven, who defeated her in the 2000 race for North Dakota governor and has campaigned for Berg.

Poll results vary

If independent statewide polls are any indication, it could be the state’s closest U.S. Senate race since 1986, when Conrad topped Republican incumbent Sen. Mark Andrews by slightly more than 2,000 votes, 50 percent to 49 percent.

• A Mason-Dixon poll of 625 likely voters from Oct. 26-28 found Berg leading by 2 percentage points, 47 percent to 45 percent. Eight percent of those surveyed were undecided, according to the poll commissioned by Valley News Live.

• A Rasmussen poll of 600 likely voters on Oct. 17-18 found Berg leading Heitkamp 50 percent to 45 percent.

• An Essman/Research poll of 500 likely voters from Oct. 12-15 found Berg leading 50 percent to 40 percent. Ten percent were undecided in the poll, which was commissioned by Forum Communications – and roundly criticized by Democrats for a sample that skewed toward Republicans and independents.

Heitkamp’s campaign has also released internal polls in the past month that have showed her leading the race by a few percentage points.

On the home stretch

Both candidates launched statewide tours last week to rally supporters and make a last-minute pitch to win over undecided voters, who pollsters predict will likely make the difference in the race.

Heitkamp is visiting 30 communities in five days on her “Bring It Home, Heidi” bus tour that began Thursday in her hometown on Mantador.

“Heidi is working to meet as many folks face to face as she can and talk about her plans to sort of break the gridlock and put North Dakota first” in Washington, Heitkamp campaign spokesman Brandon Lorenz said.

Last week, Berg toured more than 25 cities during his “Drive to Restore the American Dream” tour that started in his hometown of Hettinger.

“The response has been very good, and we’re very encouraged by that and very appreciative of the support we’ve received for Rick’s message of balancing the budget, repealing Obamacare and helping to put our country back on track,” Berg campaign spokesman Chris Van Guilder said.

Both campaigns were optimistic about their chances on Tuesday, having each received a boost from a high-profile party figure last week.

An estimated 3,500 people packed the Fargo Civic Center on Monday to hear former President Bill Clinton stump for Heitkamp.

“We signed up a huge number of those folks to go out in the last week of the election and make phone calls and knock (on) doors for Heidi,” Lorenz said.

Berg got his own boost from U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the 2008 GOP presidential candidate, who appeared at a rally for Berg on Thursday in Grand Forks.

Ad levels unprecedented

But the candidates’ broadest presence continues to be the bombardment of attack ads dominating the airwaves.

Of the more than $16 million spent on ads in North Dakota’s U.S. Senate race, roughly three-quarters of it has come from political action committees, mostly for attack ads.

The amount of money the campaigns and outside groups have dumped into broadcast advertising is unprecedented, said Carol Anhorn, general sales manager for WDAY-TV and radio, which, like The Forum, is owned by Forum Communications.

“I’ve been here 19 years. We’ve never seen anything like this as far as the candidate and PAC money and party money that have gone into one single race,” Anhorn said. “It’s beyond anything that we could have imagined.”

Airtime is booked solid between now and Tuesday, and some of it has been since May, Anhorn said.

“I don’t think this will ever happen again, to have an open seat with no incumbent and have the race close enough that both parties are pouring money in to try and tip it one way or the other,” she said. “Usually we’ve got one that’s ahead enough of the other that they pull the funds out, and we didn’t see that this year. They just kept putting more and more in.

“I mean, I’ve turned away money. I’ve had some of them come and tell me that they’ve got $20,000 more to spend, and I said, ‘I have no place to put it.’ It’s unfathomable.”

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