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MCFEELEY COLUMN: Grafton state senator Campbell already pouring money in U.S. Senate race

Mike McFeely, Oct. 17, 2015Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

FARGO—Tom Campbell really, really—really—wants you to know who he is. So much so that he's writing checks to North Dakota television stations and powerful political consultants at a rate that would make Doug Burgum blush.

Or not, since Burgum did the same thing last year and is currently occupying the North Dakota governor's office. Spend it if you got it, as they say in modern politics.

Campbell, a Republican state senator from Grafton who aspires to a seat in the U.S. Senate, has already spent more than $150,000 buying advertising on North Dakota television stations from Williston to Dickinson to Minot to Bismarck to Fargo to Grand Forks, according to reports filed with the Federal Communications Commission.

And while that's not a kingly sum in the gold-plated world of TV political advertising, it's a significant amount over a short period of time in a cheap media state like North Dakota. Campbell's spending covered the period from Aug. 16, the day he announced he was running for Senate, to Sept. 3. That's about 2½ weeks. We're still nine months away from the June 12, 2018, primary.

Do the math and Campbell would spend in the neighborhood of $2.5 million if he keeps buying this much TV between now and election day. He's trying to buy the chance to run against incumbent Democrat Heidi Heitkamp in the November general election, if she runs for re-election. Which she will.

There are reasons why Campbell is willing to write checks. No. 1, he is able. He's a wealthy farmer and businessman who is presumably spending his own money at this early juncture. No. 2, he has little name recognition outside of his legislative district in the northeast part of the state. He needs to introduce himself to every corner of the state and TV is the best way to do that. No. 3, he's trying to scare off other Republicans (Bismarck's Rick Becker, Tioga's Kathy Neset) who might be thinking of entering the race.

Campbell is making an expensive gamble. While he's the first to jump in, and he's done it with both feet, he's betting that U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer decides to not run for Senate and stays in the House. If Cramer seeks the GOP nod to run against Heitkamp, he will win. No matter how many checks Campbell writes.

The FCC filings also revealed this interesting tidbit: Campbell has hired Axiom Strategies to run his campaign, the same high-powered political consulting firm that helped Burgum to an unexpected victory last year. Axiom actually won an industry award for some work it did for Burgum. Axiom and its founder, Jeff Roe, ran Ted Cruz's unsuccessful primary campaign for president in 2016. Roe is one of the most powerful Republican campaign strategists in the country and is known for being particularly ruthless, a charge from which he doesn't shy away.

Campbell's campaign has released two TV spots and both have all the marks of Burgum's campaign. Campbell is being branded as a conservative political outsider who is a successful self-made businessman. Campbell is tying himself tightly to President Donald Trump, going so far as to say he supports a southern border wall. It's all very slick and obviously poll-tested.

There is more to come. Republican sources say Campbell has a number of TV ads already made, ready to roll out in the coming weeks. It's the Burgum blueprint, overcoming lack of statewide name recognition with an avalanche of money and TV advertising.

Campbell's got it. He's spending it. Or flushing it, if Cramer joins the fray.

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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