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Billionaire Koch brothers' network launches digital ad blitz thanking Democrat Heidi Heitkamp as midterms near

  • Americans for Prosperity is unleashing a digital advertising campaign on Friday thanking North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp for co-sponsoring the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protect Act.
  • The move to support Heitkamp comes only two months after the Koch network launched a six-figure ad buy attacking her for voting against the Republican tax reform bill.
  • Heitkamp is trying to protect her seat against her rival, Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer.

North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp will be going into the congressional midterm elections knowing she's received support for at least one piece of legislation by the unlikeliest of groups: the Koch political network.

Americans for Prosperity, an arm of the influential network supported by conservative billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, is unleashing a digital advertising campaign on Friday thanking Heitkamp for co-sponsoring the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protect Act, a bill that rolls back Dodd-Frank regulations mainly on community banks, or those with less than $100 billion in assets. It recently passed in Congress with bipartisan support.

"Congress achieved a significant milestone in lifting some of the toughest restrictions Dodd-Frank placed on small banks and their consumers. This was a bipartisan effort made possible by lawmakers like Heidi Heitkamp who put politics aside to work together," Tim Phillips, president for Americans for Prosperity, said in a statement.

"While we don't agree with Sen. Heitkamp on everything, particularly her vote against tax relief, we commend her for taking a stand against the leaders of her party to do the right thing. We hope to find common ground and work with Sen. Heitkamp on other issues moving forward including making tax relief permanent," he added.

The move to support Heitkamp comes only two months after the Koch network launched a six-figure ad buy attacking her for voting against the Republican tax reform bill in December. At the time, Americans for Prosperity put about $450,000 toward the advertising blitz, which ran throughout her state on television and digital outlets. She's one of 10 Senate Democrats seeking re-election this year in states President Donald Trump won during the 2016 presidential election.

But now, Americans for Prosperity is backing Heitkamp, and the aid comes as the network as a whole is looking to push forward its policy initiatives through Congress regardless of party affiliation, including criminal justice reform and protection for those participating in the Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals programs, who are also known as the Dreamers. It is also hoping to make inroads on cutting back on government spending.

"AFP is committed to working with lawmakers — regardless of party — to advance common sense reforms that help people improve their lives. At the same time, we will continue to hold members who voted against this crucial reform accountable," Philips said.

Critical moment as Heitkamp looks to defend her seat

The decision to support Heitkamp for co-sponsoring a deregulation bill could also prove to be a critical moment in the battle for her own Senate seat in North Dakota.

She's facing a challenge by Rep. Kevin Cramer, the only Republican who dared to take on the one-term senator after being reluctant to jump into the race because he originally wanted to focus on defending his own district.

GOP strategists who spoke to CNBC on the condition of anonymity say Cramer could have a rough time if Heitkamp keeps sponsoring and helping pass bills that are not only endorsed by the powerful Koch network but also Trump himself.

One of the president's goals has been to make cutbacks to Dodd-Frank, a bill passed during the Obama administration that imposed stiff regulations on banks across the country after the 2008 financial crisis.

One of its flaws, according to critics and even some supporters, was that smaller banks were struggling under the strict rules. Senators in states with powerful community banking groups were under pressure to loosen those measures.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp
Olivia Michael | CNBC
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp

After the bank deregulation bill passed last week, Heitkamp was the only Democrat invited to the bill signing at the White House. She stood next to Trump during the event.

Since Trump was elected, Heitkamp has been one of his few Democratic allies in the Senate. During the presidential transition after the election, she was invited to Trump Tower to discuss a possible cabinet position. In September 2017, Trump brought her to North Dakota on Air Force One and invited her onstage during a tax reform event.

The alliance between Trump and Heitkamp seemed to rile her rival on Wednesday as Cramer took to the North Dakota radio airwaves to declare that "some people in the White House, that think, you know, the president's too friendly with her."

When informed that the Koch network would be thanking Heitkamp for the bank deregulation bill, Cramer told CNBC that the group "should aim higher."

The bill, Cramer says, is a "pretty modest victory compared to the over 40 banking bills the House passed or the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act she voted against. Low bars are easy to step over."

Heitkamp's campaign spokeswoman said in statement that the Senator is focused on delivering for her constituents and distancing herself from partisan politics.

"Heidi got results for rural North Dakota families and businesses who depend on relationship lending because she is and has always been focused on putting partisan politics aside to deliver for North Dakotans -- and that's where her focus will remain," the statement read.