FARGO – In the first gauge of 2012 Senate races, The Cook Political Report calls Kent Conrad‘s seat “likely Democratic” – an indicator of possible drama for the incumbent Democrat who has represented North Dakota for 24 years.
Cook Political’s rating also lends credibility to speculation on Capitol Hill that Conrad might be considering retirement over another re-election bid.
Conrad, 62, has served in the U.S. Senate since winning in a historic upset over Republican Mark Andrews in 1986.
The listing of “likely” Democrat – a step down from “solid” – means those “seats are not considered competitive at this point but have the potential to become engaged.”
Cook Political Report’s Senior Editor Jennifer Duffy says the likely column should be viewed as “a watch list.”
“Conrad has a decent re-election history and no challenger is looming on the horizon,” Duffy told me. “I can certainly see the potential for Conrad to have a race and there have been some rumors that he may even retire. It’s one of those races that could move significantly over the next few months.”
The 2012 campaign season comes on the heels of dramatic change for North Dakota politics. Next month, two Republicans will join the state’s congressional delegation for the first time in decades.
This time last year, that outcome would’ve been almost unpredictable to most.
Sen. Byron Dorgan started out the campaign season in Cook Political’s “Solid Democrat” column, but his surprising retirement announcement changed everything for the race. Ultimately, Republican North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven won the seat handidly (and with a “Solid Republican” rating from Cook Political).
Dorgan’s looming retirement meant the loss of a strong incumbent to lead the Democratic ticket – making Rep. Earl Pomeroy vulnerable in what became the most competitive race of his career. Pomeroy lost by a 10-point margin to Republican Rick Berg.
Conrad has not yet formally announced his intentions for 2012, and it’s unclear how much of an impact the 2010 elections will have on his decision to run or the Senate race itself.
Though Conrad wasn’t facing an election contest this year, Republicans and conservative groups still hit him with tough criticism for his positions, especially over health care reform.
In helping with Pomeroy’s campaign, Conrad made speeches defending his own support for health care reform and spoke often in defense of drastic, and highly controversial, measures – like TARP and the stimulus package – which he says were required in order to save the country from an economic depression.
Conrad was unavailable for comment this afternoon (since the Senate was in special session for an impeachment trial of a federal judge), but I’ve offered his office the opportunity to comment when he is available.