BISMARCK — Sen. John Hoeven and Rep. Kelly Armstrong, the two endorsed North Dakota Republicans running for Congress this year, hold several key advantages over their opponents, including incumbency, superior name recognition and the popularity of their party.
But perhaps their biggest edge in pursuit of reelection is cash.
Hoeven and Armstrong maintain mammoth campaign reserves heading into election season. Their Democratic opponents have very little to fund their underdog campaigns.
Earlier this month, Hoeven, a former governor and banker who has held his Senate seat since 2011, reported more than $3.2 million in his campaign coffers, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
Katrina Christiansen, a Jamestown engineering professor and the endorsed Democrat in the Senate race, reported just $6,700 in her nascent campaign account.
Michael Steele, an unendorsed Democrat running against Christiansen in the June primary, reported less than $400 cash on hand, while Riley Kuntz, an unendorsed Republican taking on Hoeven, did not file a quarterly finance report for his recently started campaign.
Rick Becker, who
before bowing out of the race.
In the House race, Armstrong, a Dickinson lawyer, finished the first fiscal quarter with $540,000 in his campaign account.
Meanwhile, endorsed Democrat Mark Haugen, a Bismarck college adviser, did not file a campaign finance report and told Forum News Service he has raised less than $5,000.
Given the importance of building name recognition through advertising, fundraising is a central part of modern politics, said Mark Jendrysik, a political science professor at the University of North Dakota.
Congressional candidates who raise the most money don’t always win, Jendrysik said, noting GOP Sen. Kevin Cramer overcame an enormous fundraising deficit to beat former Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in 2018.
However, credible candidates in competitive races need to put up a seven-figure “buy-in” to afford staff, airtime and other campaign expenses, Jendrysik said.
“If you can’t raise money, people are not going to take you seriously,” he said.
Washington officeholders like Hoeven and Armstrong have a built-in leg up when it comes to fundraising, Jendrysik noted.
Incumbents spend much of their time fundraising for their next campaign, and corporate interests are more likely to back candidates who have proven they can win.
Between January and March, Hoeven raised about $393,000, most of which came from out-of-state donors and corporate political action committees, or PACs.
Many of the out-of-staters who donated to Hoeven did so through two pro-Israel PACs. The senator received significant donations from PACs representing energy and agriculture firms, as well as the pro-gun National Rifle Association.
Hoeven’s campaign spent about $339,000 over that span, much of it on political and financial consulting and polling.
A campaign spokeswoman for Hoeven said the senator “takes every campaign and whoever he is running against seriously,” adding he will raise money to run “a vigorous campaign” and support other Republicans.
During the first quarter, Armstrong received about $217,000 in donations, nearly 60% of which came from a variety of PACs, including Fox News’ parent company, Facebook and the North Dakota Petroleum Council.
Several notable political figures contributed to Armstrong’s campaign, including Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford, Attorney General Drew Wrigley and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring.
Both Hoeven and Armstrong received sizable donations from Harold Hamm, the founder of oil giant Continental Resources.
Armstrong’s campaign spent about $130,000 during the quarter, much of it on consulting, facility rentals and travel. He also gave $100,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee, which helps elect Republicans to the House of Representatives.
The second-term congressman told Forum News Service he ramped up fundraising efforts at the end of last year and plans to buy print, digital and radio advertising to promote his campaign in North Dakota. Armstrong added that he’ll help support Republican colleagues with tougher reelection bids, like Rep. Rodney Davis in Illinois and Rep. Bryan Steil in Wisconsin.
Christiansen said she came to the disheartening realization over the last month that the ability to raise funds appears to be more critical than having good ideas when it comes to winning elections.
The first-time political candidate believes the country needs campaign finance reform to give those without personal wealth a chance at serving in public office.
Most Americans are upset with their government, and that’s because officials are more focused on fundraising to keep their jobs than they are on implementing good policy, Christiansen said.
The Senate hopeful said she’s planning to hit the road this summer to “be where Hoeven isn’t” and to raise funds through a grassroots effort.
Haugen, who ran unsuccessfully for state treasurer in 2020, said fundraising is his top priority, so he can start to build name recognition within the state.
Both Christiansen and Haugen said they can overcome their opponents’ financial upper hand and pull off upsets in November.
Jendrysik isn’t as confident in their prospects. North Dakota Democrats are caught in a “vicious cycle” where they need money to run competitive campaigns, but it’s hard to find donors willing to bet on candidates with such an outside shot at winning, he said.
The professor suspects Hoeven and Armstrong won’t have to put much effort or money into their 2022 reelection bids to emerge victorious.