BISMARCK - As the nation turns its gaze toward North Dakota and its pivotal U.S. Senate race, the candidates' campaigns have been inundated with cash from across the country.
The race between Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer has been expected to be the most expensive race in the state's history, given its competitiveness and implications for control of the Senate. Both candidates have leaned on out-of-state sources to fuel their campaigns, a trend that experts say is not out of the norm for such a sparsely populated state.
"When you're from a state where there are fewer wealthy, elite donors, you kind of have to look elsewhere to support your campaign," said Sarah Bryner, research director for the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign finances.
In terms of dollars, 92.5 percent of Heitkamp's $200-plus individual contributions have come from outside North Dakota, compared to 63.1 percent of Cramer's, according to the Center.
But Heitkamp has received almost twice as many contributions from donors with North Dakota addresses than Cramer since he jumped into the race in February, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Heitkamp has held an overall fundraising advantage over Cramer, claiming $5.2 million in cash on hand, dwarfing his $2.4 million, according to the latest campaign finance reports that were released in July. Another fundraising quarter will end Sunday, Sept. 30.
Cramer has enlisted the help of President Donald Trump, his son Donald Trump Jr. and Vice President Mike Pence to narrow the fundraising gap with Heitkamp. Last week, he was in Texas to attend a fundraiser headlined by former President George W. Bush.
Dan Eberhart, CEO of Denver-based Canary, an oil field services company with a major presence in North Dakota, is Cramer's fundraising vice chairman. He expects Heitkamp to outspend Cramer "by close to 2-to-1," but is still optimistic that his message will resonate with voters.
"Cramer really had to lean into this when he got in the race," Eberhart said. "Sen. Heitkamp had a lot more funds available."
Cramer didn't fault Heitkamp for raising money from outside North Dakota, calling it a feature of modern Senate races. He said "we've gotten too cynical about where money comes from and how it influences the person."
In an emailed statement, Heitkamp campaign spokesman Sean Higgins said "Heidi is proud of the grassroots support and thousands of contributions she's received from North Dakotans in every corner of our state," adding that she "only answers to North Dakotans and will always be an independent voice in the Senate."
Bryner said a state's prominent industries and candidate's committee assignments help indicate the nature of their fundraising. Both candidates have seen significant contributions from the oil and gas industry, while Heitkamp, a member of the Senate's banking committee, is the top recipient of commercial bank contributions in that chamber this election cycle, according to the Center.
Lawyers and law firms is the top industry contributing to Heitkamp's campaign, while Republican leadership political action committees are tops for Cramer, the Center's research said.
"Our politics are not local anymore. We have a national political agenda," said Steven Billet, director of the legislative affairs program at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. "Whoever ends up with that seat is one of 100 people. They get a vote just like everybody else."
The contributions have provided fodder for political parties to argue the opposing candidate is out-of-touch with their constituents, such as Cramer's money from the family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whom Heitkamp voted against, and Heitkamp's Goldman Sachs cash.
David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, said arguments like those might motivate some voters, but people are still more concerned about issues the economy and health care.
"When it comes down to issues that move people, I think the special interest money comes in pretty far down the list," he said.