The big political news on Tuesday was Sen. Kent Conrad’s announcement that he will not seek re-election to another term, which means his time as North Dakota’s senior U.S. senator will come to an end in 2012.
Herald staff writer Chuck Haga had an article about the development and how state and national leaders responded to the news. And Politico’s David Catanese has an article today about how Conrad’s decision could boost the chances of Republicans gaining control in the Senate after the 2012 elections.
I spent a good chunk of Tuesday trying to answer one big question – if Conrad isn’t going to be on the ballot, who will be the U.S. Senate candidates next year?
I spoke with more than a dozen people ranging from Rob Port, the writer of the conservative Say Anything blog, to a handful of the state politicians who are weighing a possible bid for the Senate. I ended up with a lot of interesting speculation, adding up to about 30 pages of notes that would have been enough information to write an entire chapter.
Here’s how my article in today’s Herald turned out:
Are you ready for another Election Day contest between Rick Berg and Earl Pomeroy?
How about a race between former Democratic Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp and Republican Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk?
Or could it be Democratic-NPL state Sen. Ryan Taylor versus Republican Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem?
Those were among the dozens of possible U.S. Senate campaign lineups suggested on Tuesday as North Dakotaâ€™s politicians and political junkies reacted to the news that Sen. Kent Conrad wonâ€™t seek re-election next year â€” and speculated on what that could mean for the 2012 ballot as both parties try to win the Senate seat that Conradâ€™s held since 1986.
Most told the Herald that itâ€™s still far too early to decide on a Senate run, especially considering that the state political parties wonâ€™t hold their candidate endorsing conventions for another 14 months.
Rob Port, the Minot-based writer of the conservative Say Anything blog, said he expects the Senate race will attract a â€œstrictly A-list lineupâ€ of candidates from both parties now that Conrad isnâ€™t running.
â€œObviously there are people that are thinking about 2012,â€ he said. â€œBut I donâ€™t think thereâ€™s anybody thatâ€™s made a firm decision about 2012 just because itâ€™s a long ways out.â€
Joe Aronson, executive director of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party, said itâ€™s â€œa little earlyâ€ for anyone to start campaigning announce a campaign for the Senate.
Republicans who previously were gearing up for a race against Conrad now find themselves in a â€œdifferent political landscape,â€ he said, while Democrats are just starting to talk about their potential candidate now that Conrad wonâ€™t be on the ballot.
â€œThey have jobs, careers and families, and to run for the U.S. Senate, thatâ€™s not an easy task,â€ he said. â€œI donâ€™t think anybody thatâ€™s considering running is going to take that lightly.â€
But Aronson said much of North Dakotaâ€™s 2012 ballot is in play at this point â€” besides the open Senate race, the state also has a new member of the U.S. House and a new governor.
â€œYouâ€™re looking at the three races at the top of the ballot being very competitive,â€ he said. â€œI think thatâ€™s exciting for voters to hear a good discussion of the issues.â€
Berg vs. Pomeroy?
Shortly after his announcement, Conrad said there are â€œvery strongâ€ potential Democratic-NPL candidates for the Senate. He specifically mentioned Heidi Heitkamp, her brother Joel, a talk radio host in Fargo and a former state senator, and state Sen. Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, among others.
â€œAll have tremendous future potential for statewide office in North Dakota,â€ he said.
Conrad said he wasnâ€™t sure if former Rep. Earl Pomeroy would be interested in running for the office, â€œbut heâ€™d be exceptional.â€
Pomeroy was defeated last year by Republican Rick Berg in his re-election bid last year for a 10th term in the U.S. House. Earlier this month, he announced that he had joined the health care group of Alston & Bird, a Washington, D.C., law firm.
â€œI just started a new job,â€ Pomeroy said Tuesday. â€œIâ€™m in a new chapter of my career and Iâ€™m not looking back.â€
Port said heâ€™s heard several names mentioned as possible Republican candidates for the Senate, including Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, former state Republican Party Chairman Gary Emineth and Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk.
Kalk formed an exploratory committee for a possible Senate run earlier this month, and said Conradâ€™s decision to not run for re-election wonâ€™t change his approach. His top priority remains his duties on the public service commission, he said, while he looks into a Senate bid.
â€œIn the evenings and weekends, Iâ€™m going to hit as many Republican events as I can to talk about the issues and figure out where to best serve the people,â€ he said.
Itâ€™s â€œall just supposing at this point,â€ but Port said he has a prediction for the Republican Senate candidate: Berg, the stateâ€™s new lone member of the U.S. House.
â€œIf I was going to put money down on the race, knowing that nothingâ€™s for certain, I would bet that Bergâ€™s going to jump from the House to the Senate now,â€ he said.
Berg said Tuesday was â€œabout Kent Conradâ€ and honoring his years of service to the state, not speculation on who might run to replace Conrad in the Senate.
â€œI havenâ€™t had a chance to think about down the road,â€ he said.
But Berg didnâ€™t dismiss a possible Senate run, and said the focus for his successful U.S. House campaign last year was â€œbeing able to get here and control this spending and get our country back on track.â€
â€œWherever I can play the most important role in doing that is whatâ€™s important to me,â€ he said.
Some of the potential Democratic-NPL candidates for Senate mentioned Tuesday have something in common: they considered Senate campaigns in 2010 after Sen. Byron Dorgan decided not to run for re-election.
Now that Conrad isnâ€™t running, these contenders are back in the mix of potential candidates for the party in 2012.
Heidi Heitkamp ended a couple of months of speculation in 2010 by announcing that she wouldnâ€™t run for Dorganâ€™s spot on the Senate, saying at the time, â€œmy heart and my life is in North Dakota.â€
When asked Tuesday if sheâ€™s considering a Senate bid in 2012, Heitkamp said in a written statement that she was spending the day reflecting on Conradâ€™s â€œlong and dedicated serviceâ€ to the state.
â€œTo those who have asked me what my personal plans will be, it is far too early to speculate, and not appropriate today,â€ Heitkamp wrote.
Kristin Hedger was another potential Democratic-NPL Senate candidate in 2010, but she said last spring the timing wasnâ€™t right. She serves as vice president of Killdeer Mountain Manufacturing, a western North Dakota company thatâ€™s owned by her family, and unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Secretary of State Al Jaeger in the 2006 election.
Hedger said sheâ€™s interested in public service, adding â€œthe U.S. Senate is an excellent venue from which to work for the people.â€ But sheâ€™s also weighing business opportunities and said she enjoys doing beneficial things for the state from the private sector.
â€œWeâ€™ve got a wealth of talent throughout the state, and thereâ€™s a real need for improving public service,â€ she said. â€œBut itâ€™s early and, for me personally, itâ€™s just too early to speculate.â€
Tracy Potter, a state senator from Bismarck, won the partyâ€™s nomination for the U.S. Senate last year but was defeated on Election Day by former Gov. John Hoeven. He said Tuesday that he hasnâ€™t decided if heâ€™ll run again in 2012.
â€œIâ€™ve had about two hours to think about it,â€ he said. â€œIâ€™ve got a real job and a real life, and the jumping into something that quickly is not part of my makeup. Iâ€™m certainly interested in it.â€
Republican Tax Commissioner Cory Fong said heâ€™s focused right now on the â€œvery importantâ€ session of the North Dakota Legislature, adding that tax issues are once again â€œfront and centerâ€ as theyâ€™ve been in recent sessions.
He said Republicans have several â€œvery, very strong potential candidates,â€ including Berg, Stenehjem, Gov. Jack Dalrymple and Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley.
Fong also could become the partyâ€™s candidate for the Senate, but he said heâ€™s still in a â€œrecovery modeâ€ after last yearâ€™s successful campaign for re-election.
â€œItâ€™s just really early and I think there will be a lot of things that will evolve and unfold over the next several months that probably will give a pretty good idea of who our candidate will be,â€ he said.
State Sen. Ryan Taylor, D-Towner, the leader of the Legislatureâ€™s Senate Democrats, is among the names of possible Democratic-NPL candidates who could run for Conradâ€™s spot on the Senate.
He said Tuesday that itâ€™s â€œalways a possibility.â€ But heâ€™s focused on the current legislative session and said decisions like this often come down to a â€œmatter of timing.â€
â€œLike anything, never say never,â€ he said. â€œI think plenty of people could come in and make a good, competitive run in this race.â€
Democrat Jasper Schneider, a former state legislator who now serves as the USDA Rural Development state director, said heâ€™s committed to public service and really enjoys the job he now has.
â€œItâ€™s too early to make any speculations or for myself to make any announcements,â€ he said. â€œEverybody is taking in the news that Sen. Conrad made this morning. This day is about him.â€
State Sen. Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, also was mentioned as a possible Democratic-NPL candidate next year. But he said Tuesday he â€œhad not given this one second of thoughtâ€ until asked by the Herald about a possible Senate run.
â€œWeâ€™re in the midst of a busy legislative session and focused on introducing legislation,â€ he said. â€œCertainly an announcement like this is a big one, and weâ€™re all going to have time to think about the ramifications of it in the months ahead.â€