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State's federal races attract $1.2M in ads

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 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.

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.

Berg faces a challenge in the June 12 primary against 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.

His is also one of the few campaigns airing ads on statewide radio stations.

Democrat Heidi Heitkamp isn't facing a contest 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.