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North Dakota getting a jump on November

FARGO, N.D. -- It is early July and already for more than several weeks attack ads have been running on television. No, it's not Minnesota in the midst of a divisive battle for the U.S. Senate.

It's the quiet prairie state of North Dakota. The battle is well heated in a race to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad.

The battle is shaping up between U.S. Rep. Rick Berg and former North Dakota Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp, both seeking Conrad's seat. Berg is a newcomer to Washington, D.C.. winning election to the U.S. House in 2010 and replacing long-time Rep. Earl Pomeroy.

As a follower of Minnesota politics for more than three decades, I find it different to view the politics of another state.

The reason I am so intrigued by the race is that I am currently in Fargo, after taking a spill in my power wheelchair, sending me to the hospital and to a nursing home here for rehabilitation.

The airwaves have been filled with commercials by Berg and Heitkamp, most recently focusing on the pending health care decision by the U. S. Supreme Court. Berg attempted to attach Heitkamp to "Obamacare," quoting her as saying so. It seems strange to me to point out the obvious, as Heitkamp, a Democrat, most likely would be in support of the Democrat-crafted bill. Further, it backfired when the Supreme Court upheld the bill, making it look like Heitkamp was in the right all along.

Heitkamp returned with attack ads against Berg, citing his short-term voting record in the House, including votes for cuts in Medicare. Of course that's also the obvious, as Republican Berg followed the party line in trying to trim Medicare spending. Heitkamp cites, however, that those votes will adversely affect senior citizens services, an ad designed to attract the senior citizen vote to Heitkamp.

Nearly six months away from the November election, it seems odd to find high-profile candidates waging war so early in the campaign. It's even stranger that a Washington insider, Berg, could well take the role of an incumbent, but it seems so early to wage such an attack on a challenger when incumbents usually try to ignore them.

Berg also seems to act like an incumbent when it comes to fundraising, having outraised Heitkamp by almost 2-to-1 in this campaign cycle, in reports to the Federal Elections Comission through the end of May.

The report shows that Berg has raised more than $3.1 million while Heitkamp reported raising $1.66 million. Going into June, Berg had $1.6 million cash on hand but had $104,000 in debt. Meanwhile, Heitkamp entered the month with $759,000 cash but had no debt.

So that's nearly $5 million raised in a race that still has six months to go. For the client state of North Dakota, this race could develop into something similar to Minnesota's Al Franken-Norm Coleman race that had Minnesota on edge for many months and saw a recount in the final election. North Dakota, usually a quiet state with long-term incumbents, has an opportunity to elect its second new senator.

Heitkamp faced then-Gov. John Hoeven in a bid for the Senate earlier to replace retiring Democrat Sen. Byron Dorgan. Hoeven, a Republican, won that race.

So this race becomes increasingly important as North Dakota could move from having two Democratic senators in just a few years to having two Republican senators. Also, the Senate control is at stake and taking up a Republican in North Dakota could help push the Republicans into keeping a majority in the Senate.

So this fall, with many observers saying the Minnesota race between incumbent Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar and unknown Republican challenger Kurt Bills will be a sleeper, Minnesotans can look to North Dakota to provide some entertainment as Heitkamp and Berg battle it out.


Brad Swenson retired after more than three decades with the Pioneer. He was the newspaper's Opinion page and political editor. He can be reached at