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Zaleski: Tom Campbell TV blitzkrieg not convincing

Jack Zaleski, The Forum Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Tom Campbell, the undistinguished Republican state senator from Grafton, N.D., wants to be a U.S. senator. Didn't know that? Been under a rock? He's portraying himself as a plain ol' potato farmer and political outsider. To that end, he's spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a slicker-than-snot television blitzkrieg—the first (and painfully early) salvo in what is sure to be a furious effort to deny Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., a second term. Campbell must feel the need to get his name out there because most North Dakotans don't know who the hell he is. Why should they?

The TV ads are good, if less than complete regarding Campbell's pedigree. Apparently the work of the same out-of-state agency that produced campaign spots for Doug Burgum in his successful quest for the governor's chair, Campbell's ads emphasize his youthful farm roots, his "outsider" claim and his fealty to Donald Trump. Can't go wrong among North Dakota Republicans with that absurd hubris. Or can he?

Campbell's most compelling ad tells the affecting tale of 16-year-old Tom leasing a combine, and with his brother taking off for a season of custom harvesting. Which raises a question or two. What responsible farm implement leasing company hands over an expensive machine on the signature of a 16-year-old? Was there a creditworthy adult co-signer? Surely there's more to the story than the ad reveals.

Campbell emphasizes his potato farmer status. Campbell Farms grows a lot of potatoes. But what's not told is that Tom is a banker, a property developer, and even was involved in a farm news network. In other words, Campbell is a banker/businessman/developer/politician who happens to grow potatoes. He's among those agribusiness people who measure success by getting bigger. In rural America, there's a significant downside to that economic model.

Take a statistical glance at Grafton and Walsh County, Campbell's home base. Population is down. There are fewer farms, fewer jobs, fewer businesses. Schools in rural towns have either consolidated or shut the doors because fewer family farms translates into fewer kids in school. Every time a big farmer gets bigger, a small farm disappears. Every time a big farmer bids up a land sale or land rents, small operators are squeezed out.

The trends are not unique to Walsh County. Campbell is not alone in capitalizing on a the actualities of the farm economy. But there is an impact on the viability of ag-based towns. Campbell, who wants to be seen a just a potato grower, is in actual practice a catalyst for the decline of rural towns, schools and churches, as is every big operator who fattens at the expense of neighbors. Tom's ads don't talk about that.

Campbell is first out of the chute, but he's not the Republican establishment's choice. My sources (developed during more than 30 years of covering North Dakota politics) say the party wants a dynamic businesswoman to take on Heitkamp. At least two are being courted: Tioga's Kathleen Neset, who owns an oil field service company and is a member of the State Board of Higher Education; and Fargo's Tammy Miller, CEO of Border States Electric, who was active in then-Congressman Rick Berg's failed Senate campaign against Heitkamp.

It's early. Lot's of pieces being jerked around the political chessboard. But despite his ads, Campbell does not have an advantage. No one does. Stay tuned.

Zaleski retired in February after nearly 30 years as The Forum’s editorial page editor. He continues to write a Sunday column. Contact him at