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March Mania

Incumbent Armstrong has huge funding advantage in House race

Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., announces his campaign for reelection on Monday, Feb. 17, in Fargo. Submitted photo1 / 2
Zachary Raknerud. Photo via Facebook.2 / 2

BISMARCK — Kelly Armstrong enters an election year with the two most significant competitive advantages squarely on his side: incumbency and funding.

The first-term Republican congressman started off 2020 with about $210,000 in his campaign account, and he says serious fundraising efforts have not even begun in earnest.

Meanwhile, the two declared candidates vying for the Democratic-NPL Party's nomination have few funds to draw on. Retail manager Zach Raknerud described his campaign funds as "pretty darn low," saying the campaign had only raised about $2,000. Frequent political candidate Roland Riemers, who joined the race last month, said he will rely on name recognition and won't be concerned with fundraising until after he wins the June primary.

Overall, incumbents in the U.S. House won reelection 91% of time in 2018, and the candidate who spent the most money during the campaign won 89% of the time, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Armstrong said he won't leave anything to chance in November. For their part, Raknerud and Riemers said they're not intimidated by Armstrong's overwhelming financial edge.

"I know how to (run a campaign) on the cheap," Riemers told Forum News Service. "It's not how much you have — it's how well you use it."

From the filings

Armstrong, who is North Dakota's lone member of the U.S. House, said fundraising is "obviously important" so the campaign can get its message out to voters and pay staff and expenses.

His campaign received nearly $445,000 from donors last year, with nearly 80% coming from political action committees rather than individual contributors, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Often referred to as "PACs," the committees usually represent a specific interest, business or industry.

Armstrong said he wanted to give his North Dakota donors a break last year since they had aided his successful bid for office in 2018. He said the campaign will again ramp up fundraising efforts in his home state as the election draws closer. While he said the relationships he has forged in North Dakota are "the most important," he noted that the connections he has made in Washington are also valuable.

North Dakota's two biggest industries, energy and agriculture, contributed significantly to Armstrong's cause in 2019.

More than a fifth of all money taken in by the campaign came from the energy sector, including nearly $55,000 from oil and pipeline companies and executives, according to a Forum News Service analysis. PACs tied to agriculture committed nearly $47,000 to Armstrong's campaign, with beet sugar growers and sugar industry representatives leading the way.

Armstrong said he likely receives donations from the industries because he promotes "good policy in both." He said that he would "never apologize for taking money from the energy of ag industry" but added that while he supports the industries, he doesn't necessarily back every policy preference.

The Dickinson native also received sizable contributions from medical and health care committees, legal practices, lobbying firms and tobacco companies.

Tommy and Grant Fisher, of Dickinson-based construction company Fisher Sand and Gravel, gave Armstrong's campaign a total of $10,000 in 2019. The company recently received a controversial $400-million federal contract to build part of President Donald Trump's proposed southern border wall.

Raknerud said his campaign would rely only on individual donors and criticized Armstrong for accepting PAC money. The Minot Democrat suggested that taking corporate donations could compromise Armstrong's judgment as a lawmaker.

Armstrong strongly rejected this notion, saying he tells donors not to expect any favors in return for their contributions.

"You give to me because you believe in me — not because you're going to get something from it," Armstrong said.

The congressman's campaign spent about $354,000 last year, nearly two-thirds of which went to paying employees, consultants and other miscellaneous expenses. The other $121,000 the campaign spent went to other candidates' accounts and the National Republican Congressional Committee, a massive party fund that supports Republican bids for House seats.

Armstrong is still owed $250,000 by his own campaign account from personal funds he put into the 2018 effort. He joked that he'll eventually pay himself back from "the world's worst savings account."

North Dakota's two Republican senators are not up for reelection in 2020, but both were active in raising and spending money last year.

The campaign for Sen. John Hoeven, whose term ends in 2022, received more than $763,000 and spent about $703,000 last year. As of the end of 2019, the campaign account held more than $1.9 million, according to federal filings.

Sen. Kevin Cramer's term doesn't end until 2024, but his campaign's account had a balance of about $184,000 to end the year. Cramer's campaign received $243,000 and spent $259,000 in 2019.

Incidentally, Cramer's win over Democrat Heidi Heitkamp in 2018 represents one of the few occasions a candidate has won a race after being outspent by an incumbent. Heitkamp's campaign spent four times more money thank Cramer's during the election cycle. Pulling off this kind of victory is slightly more common in the U.S. Senate than in the House.