2012 race wide open; Conrad’s Senate seat declared a “toss up”

Kent Conrad

FARGO – In light of Kent Conrad‘s retirement announcement yesterday, the Cook Political Report now puts North Dakota’s U.S. Senate seat in the “toss up” category – just one indicator, at this point, of how this seat could easily go to either party in 2012. 

Last month, the report put Conrad’s seat as tentatively in his favor but noted that could change given the uncertainty of Conrad’s intentions to seek re-election. 

With Conrad officially out of the 2012 race, this drastically changes the playing field for potential contenders considering a bid of their own. It’s arguably a free-for-all for political hopefuls on both sides of the aisle. As The Forum’s Mike Nowatzki reported today, there are many names already being mentioned for both Republicans and Democrats. 

But consider it like a game of chess: Each party wants to strategically place their pieces where they’ll have the highest chance at victory.

In 2012, there’s not only the U.S. Senate election to consider, but also elections for the U.S. House seat and the North Dakota governorship. So while there’s a wide array of candidates to choose from, the parties and potential candidates need to decide where they might best fit into the game. 

Here are some of the names being mentioned, in no particular order. (Many of these also were raised as possibilities after former Sen. Byron Dorgan announced his retirement barely a year ago.)

DEMOCRATS:

  • Like last year, Heidi Heitkamp seems to be the foremost mentioned possibility. However, the chances of a Senate candidacy seem far less likely for her than a second run to be North Dakota’s governor. When Heitkamp declined a bid for Dorgan’s seat last year, she made no secret of her desire to seek the governor’s office again. She ran unsuccessfully in 2000 against now-Sen. John Hoeven.
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  • Heitkamp’s brother Joel Heitkamp also has been mentioned. He’s a former state legislator and Fargo radio personality. His name also was raised last year, but at that time, he showed no strong interest in running for Congress.
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  • State Sen. Mac Schneider, of Grand Forks, seems a possibility for either the Senate or House seat. Schneider is the son of the Democratic-NPL Party chairman and is one of the co-chairmen of the Dem-NPL’s “Next Generation North Dakota,” which seeks to recruit and cultivate young Democratic talent.
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  • State Rep. Corey Mock, of Grand Forks, comes off the heels of running an aggressive statewide campaign, but he fell far short of winning the office. Mock ran for Secretary of State against longtime incumbent Al Jaeger and garnered less than 38 percent at the polls.
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  • State Sen. Ryan Taylor is a rising up-and-comer for North Dakota Democrats. He might be relatively unknown to the Fargo area, but this rancher from Towner, N.D., has been in the state Senate since 2003 and was recently  elected minority leader for the 2011 session.
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  • USDA State Rural Development Director Jasper Schneider said last year he didn’t want to leave his appointed post to seek the Senate, and it’s unknown whether that’s changed for him now. President Obama nominated Schneider in late 2009. (Schneider also is the nephew of the party chairman and cousin to Mac Schneider.)
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  • Former state Sen. Tracy Potter just ran for North Dakota’s other U.S. Senate seat and lost to the formidable candidacy of John Hoeven. Potter said he’s undecided on whether he’d seek another chance at the opportunity, and it’s unknown whether he’d fair better against a different opponent.
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  • The state directors for both Dorgan and Conrad also were named, as they were this time last year. Pam Gulleson, a former state legislator and Dorgan’s state director, had said she wanted to finish her time with Dorgan before considering another bid for public office. Meanwhile, Conrad’s state director Scott Stofferahn expressed no interest last year in running.

REPUBLICANS:

  • Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk seems the most likely to jump in the race. He announced last week he’d formed an exploratory committee to gauge supporters’ interest, but he hasn’t formally declared himself a candidate.
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  • After Conrad’s announcement, newly elected U.S. Rep. Rick Berg became a logical possibility, too. The former Fargo legislator is barely two weeks into his first term in Congress, but GOP supporters say he could choose to move up to the Senate in two years, instead of seeking another term in the House.
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  • North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem has long been mentioned as a potential contender against Conrad. When asked about it after the November election though, Stenehjem answered vaguely, saying his primary focus would be on his next term in state office. He was re-elected in November.
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  • Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley has been vocal in the past about his political motivations, but it appears the former U.S. attorney might be more interested in a bid for governor than a bid for the U.S. Senate. But he hasn’t been clear on which scenario he’d prefer.
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  • Gov. Jack Dalrymple could be another potential contender, but Dalrymple hasn’t made clear his intentions for the 2012 gubernatorial race. Having just replaced now-Sen. Hoeven, Dalrymple first needs to decide whether he wants to seek a full term in the governor’s office before he considers a run at the Senate.
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  • Public Service Commissioner Tony Clark was also mentioned by state party leaders. Clark temporarily served as North Dakota’s GOP chairman for a few months last year.

Within hours after Conrad’s bombshell announcement yesterday, the blogosphere was on fire with speculation about who might vie for a chance at his seat. Some of the possibilities – like the ones above – seem plausible, others far less so.

Two names I’ve seen mentioned seem either very obscure or minute possibilities:

  • Among Republicans, it’s former Ag Secretary and North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer. He’s said repeatedly he’s not interested in seeking the U.S. Senate at this time and reiterated that sentiment yesterday.
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  • Among Democrats, it’s former Rep. Earl Pomeroy. Political observers fueled speculation yesterday after The Hill reported Pomeroy was not ruling out a bid. However, in my interview with Pomeroy two weeks ago, he said his career in public office was over.

“I don’t see myself running for office again. I enjoyed it enormously. I think if I’m going to be successful in this new venture, I’m going to put my full time and attention and efforts into succeeding in this new effort. The new effort will include trying to impact positively important public policy decisions, but rather than being an elected official, I’ll be working with elected officials to accomplish that.”

- Earl Pomeroy, 1/5/2011

Pomeroy also said as much to Politico yesterday, saying “I’m about two weeks into a new job. I’ve changed course and I’m not looking back.”

The names above are by no means an exhaustive list of potential contenders. The race is wide open for any Democratic or Republican political hopeful to consider a bid, and there’s room for a dark horse or two.

How successful a would-be candidate might be, though, will depend on a number of factors - including name recognition, credentials, political influence and public opinion.

At least, this is certain: It’s far too soon to know who will run, who the front-runners might be and who will ultimately be named the victor.

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