GRAND FORKS -- Get ready for a title fight.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., look highly likely to be their parties’ nominees for a Senate seat. Both are big names in North Dakota politics, and with control of the U.S. Senate on the line this November, observers say it makes for an equally big matchup -- and a flood of outside money into one of the country’s smallest states.
“This will be the most expensive election, per vote cast, in American history,” said Mike Jacobs, former Grand Forks Herald publisher and a longtime observer of North Dakota politics. “We can expect saturation advertising from all of the PACs, from the political parties, from individual parties and so on on an unprecedented level.”
So what does that mean?
“Every time you watch the news, one or two out of every three ads is going to be political,” said Bo Wood, a University of North Dakota professor of political science and public administration. “You’re going to get phone calls all the time with people trying to tell you stuff or ask you questions.” And the more that’s spent on the race, he added, “the more you’re bombarded with political messages. In your mailbox, on your telephone, on your radio, on your television.”
This past week saw the sudden hospitalization of Cramer’s 35-year-old son, Isaac, who was reportedly in grave condition last weekend. He has begun to stabilize, though, and both Wood and Jacobs downplayed the likelihood that his son’s health will affect the race.
“I don’t think that the fact that there’s an illness is really a factor -- at least in my calculation -- of how the race is going to develop,” Jacobs said. “Unless of course, it discourages Cramer’s campaign or his own enthusiasm for the race.”
The Senate is controlled 51-49 by the GOP, and if Democrats hope to make gains, they’ll need to not only unseat Republicans, but defend their own seats. In North Dakota, that may be easier said than done. Of all the 2018 Senate elections with Democratic incumbents, North Dakota ranks the second-highest in Trump support in the 2016 election. He won about 63 percent of the state’s ballots, behind only West Virginia’s 68 percent, and North Dakotans gave him a 57 percent approval rating across 2017, according Gallup data published last month.
What’s more, Heitkamp only won her seat in 2012 by a margin of less than 3,000 votes.
But, as Cramer himself said last month, the race is no “layup.” Speaking earlier this week, Jacobs said the congressman will have to avoid the perception that he is a hard partisan, overly ambitious or attempting to purchase the Senate seat as November nears.
“You’ve got a case where you’ve got a well-regarded, fairly popular incumbent Democrat in a state that Donald Trump carried (convincingly). … That is an interesting mix, because both sides can make a really compelling case that they have a shot here,” Wood said.
‘It’s going to get dirty’
The race has already given political observers plenty to talk about. Cramer has drawn criticism for using hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds to reimburse himself and pay family members in recent years -- from mileage to per diem items for Cramer to employment of his wife and payment to a videography business owned by a daughter. Reimbursements to himself and salary payments to his wife have totaled $48,847.20 during this election cycle, according to Federal Election Commission data.
Last month, Cramer defended the payments as both legal and ethical, saying his wife had long served as his campaign manager and was paid less than what “25-year-olds get that come out of Washington, D.C.”
Heitkamp has contended with criticism of her own, though of a different type. A Senate Republicans’ booster group has issued a steady stream of criticism against Heitkamp since at least August, characterizing her as an “out-of-touch” partisan and criticizing votes on methane flaring, the Republican tax overhaul and health care. But analysis from FiveThirtyEight shows she votes with Trump’s position slightly more than half the time -- in line with other Democrats from red states.
“It’s going to get dirty. It has to get dirty,” Wood said, arguing that Heitkamp’s appeal stems more from her charisma than her voting record, making it a key target for a challenger. “Both sides have an incentive … to not focus on policy differences, but to focus on character. That means it’s dirty.”
While Jacobs predicts that this race will be the most expensive per vote in national history, it’s widely assumed the race will be the most expensive in state history. To earn the title, it would have to top the multimillion Republican gubernatorial race between Gov. Doug Burgum and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, as well as the combined $11.8 million spent by both Heitkamp and her Republican opponent U.S. Rep. Rick Berg in 2012.
Already, Heitkamp’s campaign says she has raised more than $7.7 million this six-year election cycle and had nearly $4.5 million cash on hand at the beginning of the year. At the same time, Cramer’s campaign had nearly $1 million cash on hand, according to FEC documents.
There are other candidates in the race as well -- notably Dustin Peyer, seeking the Democratic-NPL endorsement, and Thomas O’Neill, who is running as a Republican. But political experts see them as significant long shots, given the name recognition and financial resources behind Heitkamp and Cramer.
And those resources, Wood said, will keep flowing as long as the race is tight.
“If it looks like one side is clearly dominating, then the money will flow away, and this will fade,” Wood said. “But if it turns out that it’s really close, and it could be 50-50 and it could tip the balance, then you’re going to see money pour into this race like we’ve never seen before.”