North Dakota GOPers Target Conrad Seat

Posted December 26, 2010 at 11:00pm

Correction Appended

Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad may be in for a wild ride next year. Though the North Dakota Democrat hasn’t announced whether he’ll run for re-election, at least half a dozen Republicans have been mentioned as Conrad opponents and it seems someone is already polling voters about potential candidates.

Conrad hasn’t struggled for re-election in the past, and his 2006 re-election was even easier than previous races. After popular Republican Gov. John Hoeven decided to finish his second term as governor instead of running for Senate, Conrad faced Republican farmer Dwight Grotberg and won with 69 percent of the vote. Conrad was first elected to the Senate in 1986, but decided not to run for re-election in 1992, fulfilling a pledge not to seek a second term if the deficit had not been reduced. But when Sen. Quentin Burdick (D) died in September 1992, state officials asked Conrad to run for the seat. In that race and those following, he has won with at least 58 percent of the vote.

But 2010 changed the landscape in North Dakota. North Dakota’s delegation had consisted of all Democrats since 1987. But in 2010, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) chose to retire. Hoeven won the open Senate seat with 76 percent of the vote, and at-large Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D) lost his re-election bid to Republican state Rep. Rick Berg. Given the major shift in the state, the National Republican Senatorial Committee considers North Dakota one of its prime pickup opportunities as the GOP tries to build on its 2010 gains and win back control of the Senate in 2012. This cycle, Roll Call Politics rates the North Dakota Senate race Leans Democratic.

Conrad, 62, has many factors to consider. He decided to stay as chairman of the powerful Budget Committee in the 112th Congress instead of moving to the Agriculture Committee. Just before Christmas, the state Supreme Court rejected a “Recall Conrad” effort spearheaded by tea partyers and the conservative American Civil Rights Union. The attorney general and secretary of state, both Republicans, had previously refused to take up the cause.

Conrad is a close friend and ally of President Barack Obama, who’s also up for re-election in 2012. Conrad was one of Obama’s first endorsements from Senate colleagues during the brutal primary against then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), and the North Dakotan campaigned for Obama before the Iowa caucuses. Obama’s campaign briefly targeted North Dakota as a swing state in 2008, but as Election Day neared it devoted resources elsewhere. It’s unclear whether Obama’s re-election team will make a play for North Dakota in 2012.

Conrad’s office declined to comment for this story.

Potential Republican candidates aiming to challenge Conrad have options to weigh, as several statewide offices will be up for election in 2012. Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk, 44, said people first asked him to consider running against Conrad for Senate on election night. Kalk is up for re-election in 2014.

“After the first of the year I’m going to sit down with those folks that reached out to me and we’ll talk,” he told Roll Call.

Kalk, a retired Marine and former college professor, was elected to an open seat on the Public Service Commission in 2008. Three people are elected to serve statewide on the commission for staggered six-year terms, and all three seats are now held by Republicans. Commission Chairman Kevin Cramer was re-elected in 2010, and commissioner Tony Clark, who served a few months as state party chairman, will be up for re-election in 2012. Kalk said his decision on the race won’t depend on whether Conrad decides to run for re-election.

“If we decide to get into the race it’ll be because of the issues and what we think we can do to better the country,” he said.

Other statewide officials could also take a look at the Senate race. Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who took Hoeven’s place after the election, and Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley, a former U.S. attorney, haven’t announced whether they’ll run for election in those roles or look for different opportunities in 2012. As a state Representative, Dalrymple lost a Senate race to Conrad in 1992.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, a former state lawmaker, is frequently mentioned as a potential Senate candidate. He won re-election in 2010 with 75 percent of the vote.

What might unite Republicans would be the candidacy of former governor and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer, but Schafer said he has ruled it out.

“The legislative branch isn’t in my DNA at all,” he said in an interview.

Schafer told Roll Call that someone has been polling potential Senate candidates in North Dakota. He said both he and his wife took calls asking whether they were registered Republicans, an odd question since North Dakota voters don’t register by party.

“I received a call from a pollster, and obviously the pollster doesn’t know North Dakota because the first question was, ‘Are you a registered Republican?'” Schafer recalled. “And I said no, and he said thank you and hung up.”

No one has claimed the poll publicly, but the Bismarck Tribune reported that Wrigley and Stenehjem were the Republicans being tested against Conrad.

Correction: Dec. 27, 2010

The article misstated Sen. Kent Conrad’s age. He is 62.