Democrat Kent Conrad says he'll retire: big opportunity for GOP in Senate

Democrat Kent Conrad, a four-term incumbent from North Dakota, says he will not seek reelection in 2012, giving Republicans their first big chance to pick up a Senate seat in the next election.

Alex Brandon/AP
In this Jan. 7 file photo, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Sen. Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. Conrad announced on Tuesday he will not seek reelection in 2012.

The announcement Tuesday by Sen. Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota that he will not seek reelection next year presents the Republican Party with its first big Senate pickup opportunity of the 2012 election cycle.

Before Senator Conrad’s announcement, the Cook Political Report rated the North Dakota moderate’s chances of reelection as “likely.” With the four-term veteran retiring, the Democrats will be fortunate to make the race competitive. The Democratic Party currently controls the Senate 53-47, but faces a steep uphill climb in its effort to maintain control beyond 2012. The Democrats are defending 23 seats versus 10 for the Republicans.

Conrad’s departure at the end of 2012 could mark the end of a political era for North Dakota, which for years was represented in Washington by three Democrats – Conrad, former Sen. Byron Dorgan, and former Rep. Earl Pomeroy, the state’s only House member. The Dorgan and Pomeroy seats are now held by Republicans, and Conrad’s seat could fall too.

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“There are serious challenges facing our state and nation, like a $14 trillion debt and America’s dependence on foreign oil,” Conrad said in his retirement statement. “It is more important that I spend my time and energy trying to solve these problems than to be distracted by a campaign for reelection.”

In listing his top priorities for his final two years in office, Conrad listed putting the country on “a sound fiscal course” first. Conrad was one of three Democratic senators to serve on President Obama’s bipartisan debt commission; he supported the commission chairs’ tough recommendations. Aside from debt and foreign oil, Conrad also plans to focus on crafting a new farm bill, advancing permanent flood control for the Red River Valley, and addressing the flooding threat by North Dakota’s Devils Lake.

Republican reaction

In a statement, Mr. Obama remarked on Conrad’s “unmatched dedication to putting our country on a sound fiscal path and a commitment to meeting our nation’s energy challenges.”

Republicans reacted gleefully to Conrad’s announcement. For now, though, the North Dakota political landscape does not look as bleak for the Democrats as it did two years ago, when then-Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) announced he was retiring. At that point, he already faced the likely challenge of popular Gov. John Hoeven (R), who went on to win Dorgan’s seat last fall by 54 points. The Democrats, again, have a weak bench, but the Republicans don’t have another Hoeven in their hip pocket either.

Still, the National Republican Senatorial Committee asserted Tuesday that Conrad’s retirement “dramatically reshapes this race in the Republicans’ favor.”

Conrad already faced the likely challenge of North Dakota Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk (R), and many other Republicans are expected to jump in. On the Democratic side, possible contenders include Pomeroy, former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp, and her brother, former State Sen. Joel Heitkamp, a talk radio host. Another name to watch is Ed Schultz, a populist Democratic talk show host on MSNBC who was a longtime broadcaster in North Dakota. He has reportedly thought about running for office in the past.

Second senator to announce retirement

Conrad is the second senator to announce retirement next year, following Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas. Democrats have long thought Texas had the potential to be fertile ground for statewide office, but political observers don’t see much of a Democratic bench there either.

Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar (R) was another senator on the retirement watch list, especially given the probability that he faces a primary challenge from the tea party. At a Monitor breakfast Tuesday, Senator Lugar reaffirmed plans to run. Assuming that he does, and that he faces a primary challenge, it would be his first since 1976, his first victorious Senate race.

When asked at the breakfast what has changed on the GOP side, he said this: “I think there are a great number of Americans, not just in Indiana, who are genuinely angry about how things have turned out for them.”

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