SPECIAL REPORT: North Dakota’s federal races attract $1.2 million in advertising so far

FARGO – More than $1.2 million has already been spent this year on TV and radio advertising to influence North Dakota’s hotly contested U.S. House and Senate races.

According to The Forum’s review of political files at TV stations, radio stations and major cable providers across North Dakota, federal candidates have shelled out at least $790,000 so far to promote their campaigns in advance of next week’s statewide primary election.

Outside special interest groups have also dumped more than $450,000 into the state, with hundreds of thousands of dollars more in ad time expected to be purchased before the November general election.

Advertising executives in North Dakota say this level of spending before a primary is unusual, but it’s also somewhat predictable because of high stakes, higher ad rates and a packed June ballot with several controversial statewide measures.

“The federal campaigns in 2012 are not just about who will represent North Dakota in the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate; they are about which party will control Congress,” said Pat Finken, president of Odney, a Bismarck-based advertising agency that works with Republican clientele.

“The outcome of North Dakota’s federal election may well determine who holds the majority and sets the agenda for the next six years,” Finken said.

Rick Berg

The Forum’s review of statewide ad buys found Republican Rep. Rick Berg has bought the most air time so far among any of the federal candidates.

Berg, who’s seeking the state’s open Senate seat, purchased more than $370,000 worth of TV time this spring, ahead of North Dakota Republicans’ nominating convention.

Since then, Berg has taken some time off from the airwaves, but he appears to be gearing up for a competitive general election run later this summer.

Records show Berg has purchased in advance at least $170,000 worth of ad time for July and August.

Duane Sand

Berg faces a challenge in the June 12 primary against perennial candidate Duane Sand.

Sand, whose fourth campaign for Congress is running $200,000 in debt, has kept his TV ads relatively minimal by comparison.

Sand has spent about $30,000 so far to broadcast his ads on cable networks, primarily on the Fox News Channel.

He’s is also one of the few campaigns airing ads on statewide radio stations.

Heidi Heitkamp

Democrat Heidi Heitkamp isn’t facing a contest on June 12, but she’s still hitting the airwaves early and hard to promote her Senate run.

Records show Heitkamp’s campaign has spent at least $200,000 so far to broadcast ads that aim to emphasize her background and political experience.

In competitive contests like the Berg-Heitkamp race, candidates typically seek to capitalize on whatever advantages they can. One way to do that is by communicating their messages early through TV ads, said Wayne Kranzler, CEO of Bismarck-based KK Bold, which has handled campaign advertising for several state Democrats.

Brian Kalk

“That race is really close, so they are looking at a perception game of who does best in the primary, name recognition and the perception in fundraising,” Kranzler said. “They want to show success.”

In North Dakota’s U.S. House race, the primary contest between Republican-endorsed candidate Brian Kalk and challenger Kevin Cramer has spurred a lot of advertising, too.

But, it’s also not often North Dakota has a contested primary for its U.S. House race, a factor which can also drive pre-primary advertising, Finken said.

Kevin Cramer

Cramer has spent almost $110,000 in pre-primary advertising, while Kalk has spent in excess of $77,000, at least $11,000 of which has been on radio advertising, stations have reported.

The June 12 primary will decide which of the Republicans will take on Democrat Pam Gulleson in the November election.

Gulleson and libertarian candidate Eric Olson are the only federal contenders who have yet to spend a dime on TV and radio ads, The Forum found.

Pam Gulleson

Gulleson spokeswoman Hillary Price said the Republican primary contest has given Gulleson the opportunity to “conserve resources for the campaign while the Republican candidates battle it out to see who will be the nominee.”

Meanwhile, the national parties and several special interest groups are also taking note of the competitive House and Senate races in North Dakota.

Such outside TV and radio advertising so far has mostly targeted the Senate contest but some early dollars have also been spent for the House race.

Super PACS – which can raise and spend unlimited funds from various sources – account for a third of the outside spending so far.

The conservative super PAC, Crossroads GPS, spent $75,000 this spring on pro-Berg, anti-Heitkamp ads for the Senate race.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee sought to match that attack with its own major ad buy against Berg.

Then, just this week, the Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC, filed notifications of an impending $74,000 media buy to oppose Berg’s Senate bid.

As of June 6, conservative groups have spent $294,700 on ads for North Dakota’s federal races, while liberal groups have spent $155,900, The Forum found.

North Dakota TV stations say national Democrats have also reserved large chunks of ad time in preparation for the general election battle, and Finken and Kranzler said they expect national Republicans to follow suit.

The Democrats’ Senate campaign committee has purchased in advance at least $103,000 worth of TV time for October.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has reserved $521,000 worth of time in the month before Nov. 6, likely for ads that will seek to boost Gulleson’s House bid.

Kranzler said such national groups are booking up fall airtime nationwide, “because they realize it’s going to be tougher to find the time they want” once the fall rolls around.

With only so much time available for advertising and a high demand for the slots, Kranzler said ad rates have increased by at least 30 percent since the 2010 campaign cycle.

That drives up how much campaigns spend on ads, even though they might be buying the same amount of ad time as before, he said.