McFeely: Heitkamp vs. Cramer sure to be nasty, expensive

Buckle up, North Dakota. The political campaign of your life is about to begin. It's Heitkamp vs. Cramer, the winner to the U.S. Senate. The loser gets to have a life. So who would really be the winner? For sure, those who own television and radi...
Mike McFeely, Oct. 17, 2015Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Buckle up, North Dakota. The political campaign of your life is about to begin. It's Heitkamp vs. Cramer, the winner to the U.S. Senate. The loser gets to have a life. So who would really be the winner? For sure, those who own television and radio stations in the state.

Rep. Kevin Cramer, Republican, made his flip-flop official Friday, Feb. 16. After declaring last month he was a "man of the House" and that he wanted to spend more time with his 10-year-old son, Cramer announced he will challenge incumbent Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, Democrat, in November.

That sound you hear is Tom Campbell's heart breaking, because the Grafton banker/farmer believed he had purchased the right to take on Heitkamp. Now Tom will turn his attention toward the House seat left open by Cramer and will have his heart broken again. It's believed North Dakota Republican Party chairman and state senator Kelly Armstrong of Dickinson will run for that seat, leaving the self-funding Campbell $750,000 poorer with nothing to show for it.

The heavyweights, Heitkamp and Cramer, have come to play. Cramer says his polling shows he has the advantage. Some national political observers believe it to closer to a toss-up, given Heitkamp's incumbency.

This we know for certain: It is going to be an epic political battle, nasty and expensive. You're going to be sick of it by the time Election Day on Nov. 6 rolls around-or probably long before-because ads for and against the candidates are going to flood your televisions and radios.

"There'll be so much money that the parties might not just buy ads-they might buy entire television stations," said southern California-based Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan Inside Elections.

He was joking. We think.

There's the possibility of Heitkamp vs. Cramer topping the $40 million mark in campaign spending, taking into account spending by the campaigns, parties and outside sources. That's an unheard of amount in North Dakota politics, much of it going toward television advertising.

The benchmark of campaign excess came in Heitkamp's last race, when she narrowly defeated Rick Berg in 2012. That go-around cost about $30 million total and politics haven't gotten any cheaper in six years.

"It means there will be ads all the time," said Kyle Kondick of the University of Virginia, managing editor of the political newsletter Sabato's Crystal Ball.

And it's not likely many of the ads will portray the candidates in a warm and fuzzy light. Rainbows, unicorns and sunshine need not apply. More like brass knuckles and nunchucks.

This is going to get ugly, given the stakes. Democrats desperately want to hold the seat. Republicans, with a slim 51-49 majority in the Senate, just as desperately want to take it. And $40 million can buy a lot of ugliness, especially since much of the money will come from outside groups on both sides. They have nothing to lose and don't care what they leave behind in their wake.

"I expect a standard competitive Senate race run with a lot of negative ads," Gonzales said. "There's no question there's going to be some nasty ads. The only question is where they are going to come from and what are they going to say."

We can probably guess the topics. Cramer paying his wife $140,000 out of campaign funds. Heitkamp's tax bill vote. Cramer making disparaging comments about how women dress. Heitkamp's views on abortion. And probably some things we haven't even heard about yet.

If you're a political junkie, you'll be mesmerized. If you're the other 95 percent of the population-normal, in other words-you'll be driven crazy.

North Dakota politics will be in the national spotlight, the Heitkamp vs. Cramer race being one of the top handful of Senate dogfights to watch in the country. A Democrat with a popular personal brand running against a well-known Republican in a conservative state President Donald Trump won by 36 points in 2016.

Buckle up. The ride is just starting.

"The stakes are high and it's a race we'll all be watching for nine months," Gonzales said.