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Earlier races, more dollars being spent for North Dakota's urban legislative seats

Across all even-numbered districts analyzed, including elections in 2012 and 2016, average large-dollar donations grew from about $7,600 per legislative candidate to about $19,750. In odd-numbered districts, which saw elections in 2010, 2014 and 2018, the average grew from about $7,000 to about $12,700.

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Corey Mock, a Democratic-NPL member of the North Dakota House of Representatives from District 42 in Grand Forks, sorts through his collection of campaign yard signs in his garage. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS -- North Dakotans can breathe a sigh of relief: this year’s campaign almost certainly won’t be the political storm that brought a tsunami of spending to the state in 2018, when GOP Sen. Kevin Cramer ousted Democrat Heidi Heitkamp from a nationally coveted seat.

But the stakes are still high for legislative hopefuls, who are eyeing their prospective campaigns now, eight months before Election Day. And those candidates are staring down a shifting landscape, where – especially along the Interstate 29 corridor – cash appears to be growing.

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“As a general rule in Grand Forks, 12 years ago when I first ran, it was kind of budgeted around trying to raise about $12,000 per candidate,” state Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, said recently. “(If) you've got competitive races, last year that figure, we were estimating $15,000 per candidate. … (Nowadays) I wouldn't be surprised to see that number hitting $18,000, for a district in a cycle.”

Mock says the trend – largely an urban phenomenon – is an unfortunate hallmark of the modern campaign. Not only do races need to begin earlier to reach voters, who grow increasingly fatigued by national politics, but politicians themselves are increasingly forced to wage campaigns on multiple fronts: airwaves, print media, front lawns, and now social media.

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An analysis appears to corroborate Mock’s claims. Weighing nearly 150 candidates’ campaigns since 2010 – spread across 13 legislative districts in Fargo and Grand Forks – online state records show a steady average increase in donations greater than $200 across the last decade. The trend comes as the nature of campaigning evolves and as an expanding Republican supermajority forces Democrats into cities – many along the Minnesota border.

Those high-dollar campaigns also raise questions about how accessible the Legislature is for middle-class residents in North Dakota’s largest urban areas, as well as questions about the influence that money buys in the Legislature.

The shift can be somewhat difficult to measure owing to the state’s campaign finance laws – and because of redistricting after 2010 – but is consistent in the limited statistics that are publicly available. Jim Silrum, North Dakota’s deputy secretary of state, told the Herald that before a change made in 2017, candidates didn’t have to disclose donations that were $200 and smaller – meaning only large-dollar donations are recorded in state documents.

And even measuring just larger donations, the trend is clear. Across all even-numbered districts the Herald analyzed, including elections in 2012 and 2016, average large-dollar donations grew from about $7,600 per candidate to about $19,750. In odd-numbered districts, which saw elections in 2010, 2014 and 2018, the average grew from about $7,000 to about $12,700.

The change also comes as the battleground for control of the Legislature shifts to North Dakota’s cities – with the Democratic caucus increasingly penned in urban areas and along the Minnesota border – suggesting that the surge in funding is as reflective of a fierce political turf war in Grand Forks and Fargo as anything else.

Notably, Democrats have lost a dozen seats since the 2012 elections, but have lost a comparatively small number of those in the Fargo and Grand Forks areas. In fact, the Legislature elected in 2012 had 37 Democrats – 23 in the House and 14 in the Senate – with 18 of them hailing from Grand Forks, Fargo and West Fargo, per the state’s online roster. That’s fewer than 50%.

Nowadays, though, the Democratic caucus has shrunk, but retained many of its seats along the Minnesota border. Today, the Democratic-NPL holds 25 legislative seats – 15 in the state House and 10 in the Senate – and according to the state’s online roster, 15 across both chambers call Grand Forks or Fargo home. That’s 60%.

Mark Jendrysik, a political scientist at UND, urged some caution with the Herald’s data. It’s noisey – meaning the data is relatively small in size and has many competing factors affecting it. For example, the analysis of 13 districts can be skewed by just a few high-dollar races scattered across them, and it’s true that several of the races were extraordinarily well-heeled. In the 2016 election in District 46, for example, across southeastern Fargo, six candidates received an average of about $32,250 in large-dollar donations.

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But sources in both of North Dakota’s major parties offer explanations that help bolster the theory that urban races, in particular, are getting more cash.

“There are vast areas in the central and western part (of North Dakota) where the Republicans didn't have any challengers, or a limited challenge, so obviously their races were relatively inexpensive,” state Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said. He added, too, that there’s a bit of an unpredictable component to races, in that party bosses oftentimes pour more money into races that seem competitive or uniquely winnable.

Rick Berg, North Dakota GOP chairman, described a kind of advertising arms race that can develop in some contests – where one candidate making the expensive leap to advertising on television can spur others to follow. Though, Berg added, “Once federal campaigns get locked in, when you have an aggressive campaign like we did two years ago, it's difficult to find ad space."

And Michael Taylor, the Dem-NPL executive director, struck a confident pose on the fundraising over the months ahead. Higher donation totals often mean effective grassroots campaigning networks, he said, and added that he’s looking forward to pressing ahead on the campaign in coming months.

“That momentum hasn't stopped on our side,” he said of the 2018 cycle. “We're really looking forward to the next six to eight months.”

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