- Associated Press - Sunday, September 16, 2012

BISMARCK, N.D. — Hustling to finish his wheat harvest, farmer Mark Nesheim was repairing his combine recently when his cellphone rang. The caller wanted to know if Mr. Nesheim would support Republican candidates in November, particularly the North Dakota GOP's Senate hopeful.

In much of the nation, it would have been just another campaign call in a busy election season. But in North Dakota, the inquiry was a rare intrusion of competitive politics into everyday life. Mr. Nesheim was annoyed.

“I don’t tell anybody. I’m an independent,” he said, explaining that the unwelcome questions put “three checks against” the candidate, Rick Berg.

Voters here haven’t seen a tight Senate race in more than a quarter of a century. As the contest intensifies between Mr. Berg and his Democratic foe, Heidi Heitkamp, many people are getting their first real taste of the untrammeled campaigning that has long been common in larger states.

When Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad announced last year that he would not seek re-election, North Dakota assumed a leading role in the battle for control of the Senate. Republicans need to gain four seats. The GOP already dominates the North Dakota Capitol, holding most statewide offices and two-thirds majorities in the Legislative Assembly.

But Ms. Heitkamp, a former state attorney general and tax commissioner who is running her sixth statewide campaign, has been even with Mr. Berg, a freshman congressman who has run only one statewide race — his defeat of incumbent Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy two years ago.

The wide-open race has attracted heaps of campaign cash. Political organizations such as American Crossroads, a group founded by Karl Rove, and Majority PAC, which supports Democratic Senate candidates, have spent more than $3.1 million on advertising in the North Dakota race.

That’s close to $6 for every North Dakotan of voting age — with the election just over seven weeks away.

“This is how elections work in most of the rest of the country,” said Mark Jendrysik, chairman of the University of North Dakota’s political science department. “This is kind of the shape of things to come in American elections. Lots of untraceable money. Lots of spending. It’s like an arms race.”

The state’s last competitive Senate race was in 1986, when Mr. Conrad first won his seat by 2,135 votes, beating incumbent Republican Sen. Mark Andrews.

Mr. Berg and Ms. Heitkamp are on pace to wage the most expensive Senate election in North Dakota history. The two candidates themselves raised $6 million and spent $3.2 million through June, according to disclosure forms. Mr. Berg alone spent $1.7 million.

Mr. Jendrysik expects the money mountain to grow even taller, possibly approaching $20 million.