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Dayton’s Exit Roils ’06 Picture

Democratic strategists looking ahead to a difficult 2006 playing field expressed muted relief after Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.) announced Wednesday that he would step aside after a single term in the chamber.

Dayton is the first Democratic Senator to announce his retirement.

While Dayton’s departure means the Democrats do not have to defend someone who was perceived to be one of their weakest Senate incumbents, the party now finds itself searching for a consensus candidate in advance of the 2006 election.

In a brief statement, the department store heir said he did not want to take on the arduous task of raising millions of dollars to wage what was sure to be a brutal campaign.

“Everything I’ve worked for, and everything I believe in, depends upon this Senate seat remaining in the Democratic Caucus in 2007,” he said. “I do not believe I am the best candidate to lead the [Democratic] Party to victory next year.”

While the names of potential Democratic candidates began circulating at warp speed within minutes of Dayton’s announcement, Republicans boasted that their chances of capturing the Gopher State seat just increased exponentially.

“Historically, unseating a sitting Senator is always so much more difficult and last election only one incumbent lost, so regardless if you feel a candidate may or may not be vulnerable … the playing field now definitely has changed,” said Brian Nick, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “The challenge is going to be for the Democrats.”

Democrats, while lamenting losing Dayton, said even though there is no heir apparent in Minnesota, they think the party will hold the seat.

“There’s a deep bench of potential candidates that far eclipses anyone you’ll see on the Republican side,” said Phil Singer, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “The state’s demographics favor us, Minnesota has a long tradition of sending strong Democrats to the Senate such as former Sens. Walter Mondale, Hubert Humphrey and Paul Wellstone. We feel optimistic. I think this is more of a problem for the Republicans than us, because they had a target before and now they don’t.”

Rep. Mark Kennedy (R), who planned to challenge Dayton, is expected to make his candidacy formal as early as this week, though on Wednesday he put out only a simple statement thanking Dayton for his service.

Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R), who has been mulling the race for a while, said Dayton’s announcement may prolong his final decision.

“It changes the dynamic, but not the stakes,” Gutknecht said in a statement. “It may cause me to take a little longer to come to a decision.”

Former Sen. Rod Grams (R), who lost to Dayton in 2000 after serving one term, has also expressed an interest in the seat.

On the Democratic side, Rep. Betty McCollum is the only House Member who political observers think might toss her hat into the ring.

“We were all taken aback by the news that Sen. Dayton was not going to be running and I respect his decision,” McCollum said in an interview on Wednesday. “Quite frankly I am exploring all of my options, I am talking to political advisers and other potential candidates in Minnesota. We will keep this seat in the Democratic column. We will use good common sense and put forth the best candidate.”

McCollum, who is in her third term, represents St. Paul and its environs.

In Minnesota, the list of additional potential candidates is long.

Democrats often mentioned are state Supreme Court Justice Alan Page; Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch; state Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson; former Rep. Bill Luther; consumer and trial attorney Mike Ciresi; former state Auditor Judy Dutcher; child safety advocate Patty Wetterling; and wealthy publisher Vance Opperman.

On the Republican side, Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Minnesota Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer may be interested.

“It will be an absolute zoo,” predicted Barry Casselman, who writes a weekly political column in The Washington Times and specializes in Minnesota politics. “A lot of Republicans will now take another look at this; Kennedy is going to have to defend his turf.”

As for Democrats, Casselman said Hatch has shown no interest in a Senate bid and Johnson has the burden of having been a Republican until 2000. He added that Wetterling, who gave Kennedy a scare in the 6th district last year, would be a “formidable” statewide candidate.

“It’s a whole new ball game,” Casselman said. “Dayton was weak, but he was the incumbent. Now Democrats have no incumbent and they have no big name. For the moment, Democrats are worse off.”

Republicans clearly think they see an opening next year.

“The unprecedented decision by an incumbent Democrat U.S. Senator to not seek reelection in Minnesota is further evidence of our state’s new role as a battleground state,” Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Ron Eibensteiner said in a statement.

“We have always expected this to be a wide-open and hard-fought race and Senator Dayton’s decision to drop out only confirms our expectation that this is a seat that Minnesota Republicans can win,” he added.

Until Wednesday, Dayton had given every indication that he would run again — he recently hired a new speechwriter and met with DSCC officials about helping him raise money.

He had come under heavy fire during the pre-Election Day break last year when he closed his Washington, D.C., office, citing concerns over a possible terrorist attack.

He was pilloried on Capitol Hill and in home state newspapers for the decision, which he said he made because he could not ask his staff to take the risk of remaining in D.C. while he was safely back in Minnesota.

Dayton has also been routinely criticized by state and national Republicans for his liberal positions and opposition to the war in Iraq.

Dayton remained defiant in public but had internalized much of the criticism directed at him in recent months, according to people close to him.

Over the pontificating of local television reporters who almost drowned the soft-spoken Dayton out of his own telephone news conference Wednesday, the Senator said he was removing himself “from the political fray.”

“I cannot stand to do the constant fundraising necessary to wage a successful campaign, and I cannot be an effective Senator while also being a nearly full-time candidate,” he said.

Dayton spent $12 million of the fortune he inherited from his family business, the former Dayton department stores, on his 2000 election and had said he could not afford to contribute nearly as much to his re-election effort.

In 2000, Dayton had to get past three strong candidates, including Rebecca Yanisch who won the state party endorsement at a convention, to win the 2000 Democratic primary. It was a fractured race that saw every segment of the Democratic Party backing a different candidate.

“I think the Democratic community is surprised,” said Minnesota Democratic Party Chairman Mike Erlandson. “Sen. Dayton is a friend of mine; I have to admit I have a little hole in my heart. I think he would have been re-elected.”

But others said the move did not catch them off guard.

Casselman noted that Dayton has pulled the plug before. Although he was the sitting state auditor and would have been a “shoo-in” for re-election in 1994, he opted not to run.

“I am not entirely surprised,” Gutknecht said in his statement. “As a matter of fact, many activists that I have been talking to have suggested that they had a growing sense that he wouldn’t run.”

While some Democrats inside the Beltway are privately relieved that Dayton chose to step down, no Democrat would say that his hand was forced.

“Absolutely not,” the DSCC’s Singer said.

Erlandson added: “Clearly this is a decision he made on his own. … I think we should respect his decision.”

Dayton is the first Democratic Senator up for re-election in 2006 to announce his retirement. On the GOP side, Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) is keeping his self-imposed two-term limit pledge and will step down as well.

Casselman said he has no doubt that Dayton was under pressure, but ultimately he thinks Dayton stepped down on his own.

“He just didn’t have the stomach for what would have been a protracted, relentless battle and attack on him,” Casselman said.

Paul Kane and Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.

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