ANALYSIS: A look at potential 2012 contenders (updated)

FARGO – There’s been a lot of movement on the North Dakota political stage recently, and that’s only sparking more speculation about who could possibly be on the ballot in 2012.

Granted, we’re still 18 months away from that November election, but the U.S. Senate race to take over Kent Conrad‘s seat is already underway, and the launch of a competitive U.S. House race is undoubtedly not far off.

As of Monday, there will be at least two confirmed candidates for the Senate race – accompanied by rampant rumor about who else might join that fray or compete for the House race, instead.

It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin, even political junkies like me.

So in an effort to weed through the speculation, I’ve contacted more than two dozen potential candidates over the past several days to determine where their intentions lie for the 2012 federal races. These Republicans and Democrats have either expressed interest themselves or are being offered up as possibilities by their party colleagues.

(Any others you think should give it consideration? Sound off below!)


IN: These individuals have declared their candidacy in the race.

Brian Kalk

>> Brian Kalk (R): This Public Service Commissioner was the first candidate to both express solid interest and become a formal candidate in either of the federal races. In his announcement speech, Kalk emphasized that he was the only potential contender to step forward for the race before Conrad – a 24-year incumbent – announced his retirement.

Conrad’s decision made the race “more attractive” to political hopefuls, Kalk said. But unwavered by the decisions of others, Kalk said in a campaign statement Saturday that “we are headed to the Bismarck convention and we will win!”

“Something must change in D.C.  I strongly believe I am the one who can stand up to the special interests and do what’s right for America and our future,” said Kalk, a 45-year-old retired Marine. “I have proven that I will stand up for my beliefs and stand up for you, no matter what the obstacles.”


Rick Berg

>> Rick Berg (R): The North Dakota congressman has only been in Washington barely four months, but he’s indicated he believes he’s ready to move from the House to the Senate.

In what one political observer described to me as “the worst kept secret in North Dakota politics,” Berg intends to declare his candidacy tomorrow evening via an Internet video to his supporters. Following the announcement, Berg has planned a three-day tour across North Dakota.

The 51-year-old former Fargo legislator and businessman would be the clear front-runner in the race, given the resounding support he already has from many prominent Republicans and his success last year in knocking off a nine-term incumbent.  However, his critics – including the Democrats – question his desire to leave the House after so little time there.


UNDECIDED: These individuals have expressed interest in the race but have not yet committed to a bid.

Pam Gulleson

>> Pam Gulleson (D): With the unanimous support of the Democratic legislative caucus and encouragement from both Conrad and former Sen. Byron Dorgan, Gulleson seems to be the Democrats’ odds-on favorite to join the race.

While she’s acknowledged she’s interested, Gulleson is still mulling a bid.

“There is a lot that goes into this kind of decision,” she told me Friday. “While I don’t have a definitive time in mind, I expect to have a decision fairly soon.”

Gulleson’s résumé is steeped in public policy work. She represented Rutland in the North Dakota Legislature for 16 years – including a stint as the Democrats’ floor leader. She most recently worked for Dorgan as his state director and chief of staff from 2002 until his retirement last year. Democrats had encouraged her to run for Dorgan’s seat in 2010, but Gulleson opted against a bid at that time.

Gulleson, 53, now works as a senior adviser at the North Dakota Farmers Union and serves on the board of directors for Dorgan’s brain-child, the Red River Valley Research Corridor.


Robert Harms

>> Robert Harms (R): The Bismarck lawyer has been involved with public policy issues in North Dakota for 25 years – including more than a decade as legal counsel for former Govs. Ed Schafer and John Hoeven. He’s currently the treasurer for the North Dakota Republican Party and one of the co-founders of the newly formed North Dakota Tea Party Caucus.

Harms, 55, has a reputation for being a staunch fiscal conservative. He’s worked with the group, Citizens for Responsible Government, and is speculated to have the encouragement of the Club for Growth (a nationally influential political action committee, which criticizes Berg for not being fiscally conservative enough).

Harms told me Friday he’s giving a Senate run “serious consideration” but he doesn’t expect to make a decision on any potential candidacy until possibly the fall.

He said Berg’s involvement in the Senate race “doesn’t change my direction.”

“What I learned from Ed Schafer: Don’t be concerned with what anyone else is doing,” Harms said.


Tracy Potter

>> Tracy Potter (D): The former Bismarck legislator might make another go at seeking one of North Dakota’s U.S. Senate seats. Now-freshman Sen. John Hoeven overwhelmingly beat Potter at the polls in November in what was Potter’s first attempt at federal office.

Potter said Friday he’s still interested in serving North Dakota in the Senate. “I still believe I would make a good U.S. Senator and that I might be the strongest Dem-NPL candidate,” Potter said. “All that said, I’m not ready to jump into another race six months after the last one. Around Labor Day, I will make up my mind.”

Potter, 60, works as the executive director of the Fort Abraham Lincoln Foundation in Bismarck.


Duane Sand

>> Duane Sand (R): Sand is no stranger to congressional campaigns. For several elections in the past decade, Sand has appeared on the ballot to challenge the longtime Democratic incumbents.

As the 2012 election looms, Sand is preparing to make another attempt at federal office.

He’s formed a campaign committee for a 2012 bid for the U.S. Senate and has been continuing his fundraising efforts even while he hasn’t been actively pursuing elected office. (He had formed a campaign committee in April 2009 in pursuit of a possible Senate run for 2010 but decided in late 2009 against seeking the GOP nomination.)

Sand, 46, is a former Naval officer. He previously ran unsuccessfully against Conrad in 2000 and against Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy in 2004 and 2008. Of late, Sand has been actively involved with the North Dakota Taxpayers’ Association, where he serves as chairman.


UNCLEAR: These individuals have been mentioned as potential contenders; however they haven’t specified where their own interest or intentions lie.

Kristin Hedger

>> Kristin Hedger (D): Hedger, 31, is a businesswoman originally from Killdeer, N.D., and a former staff member under Dorgan. In 2006, she ran an unsuccessful campaign for secretary of state. Last year, Hedger considered running for Dorgan’s seat but ultimately decided against it.

Around the same time, Hedger launched KRH Enterprises – a company that works to bolster small business and trade opportunities for North Dakota businesses. She didn’t reply to an e-mail sent Friday, but Democratic-NPL Party Chairman Mark Schneider acknowledged that Hedger’s interest in the Senate hasn’t waned.


Jasper Schneider

>> Jasper Schneider (D): North Dakota’s USDA Rural Development State Director said today he hadn’t made any decisions yet about a potential congressional bid, and he is enjoying his work in the presidentially appointed position.

“That said, I’ll continue to have conversations with my family and supporters over the coming months,” Schneider said. “I have the experience and energy to run a competitive race, so the decision will not be contingent on what anyone else does. My primary goal is to keep building a better North Dakota and to emphasize the importance of middle America to the rest of the country.”

The 31-year-old is a former Fargo legislator and attorney. (His uncle is party Chairman Mark Schneider.)



IN: These individuals have declared their candidacy in the race.

>> No one – yet. With Berg’s expected announcement Monday, many political observers expect candidates for the House race will likely begin declaring their intentions in the coming weeks. While it will contribute to a long election season, candidates attempt to seek advantage in a race by getting their name out there before their competition.


UNDECIDED: These individuals have expressed interest in the race, but have not yet committed to a bid.

Al Carlson

>> Al Carlson (R): A candidacy seems forthcoming for this Fargo legislator, who’s also the state House Republicans’ floor leader. Carlson, 62, expressed interest last month in pursuing the U.S. House seat, but his actions were contingent on Berg seeking the Senate.

Now that that’s all but confirmed, Carlson said Friday he might have a decision made within the next few weeks. A phone call and e-mail message to Carlson were not returned, but the longtime legislator revealed his intentions to the Fargo-based radio station, KFGO. He’ll be one to watch in the days ahead.


Tony Clark

>> Tony Clark (R): Clark said earlier this month he wouldn’t seek a third term to the Public Service Commission in 2012 – leaving open speculation that he might consider a federal campaign.

Clark said his forthcoming departure from the PSC wasn’t part of any grand design to pursue the House seat. But, he said, since he announced his plans, he’s had a number of people ask him to consider the congressional race.

Clark said he’s “not closing the door on it,” but he doesn’t expect to make a decision on any candidacy until probably the end of this year.

The 39-year-old has served on the PSC since 2000. Before then, he served for a time as the state’s labor commissioner and also represented Fargo in the State House during the mid- to late-90s.

Clark temporarily served as chairman of the North Dakota Republican Party for several months last year, when the departure of Gary Emineth left a vacancy before the critical 2010 election.


Tim Flakoll

>> Tim Flakoll (R): Flakoll, a longtime state senator from Fargo, is also still weighing a bid for congressional office. He said last month that he’d potentially pursue a run for the House if Berg chose the Senate race – and that seems to be the direction Flakoll’s headed in now.

“I’m still interested,” he said Friday. “I’ve had a lot of people talk to me about it – including those who would help financially and people who want to work on the campaign.”

Flakoll, 51, serves as provost for the Tri-College University based at North Dakota State University. He’s served in the North Dakota Senate since 1998.


Cory Fong

>> Cory Fong (R): Fong, the state tax commissioner, said he plans to take the next several weeks to give a House bid more consideration and he’s “not prepared to make an announcement anytime soon.”

“It’s important to me in my professional and personal development to determine if this is the right choice for me,” Fong said.

The 38-year-old was appointed tax commissioner in 2005, and then won statewide elections to the post in 2006 and 2010. He also ran Hoeven’s 2004 gubernatorial campaign.


Tony Grindberg

>> Tony Grindberg (R): This longtime Fargo legislator told The Forum on Friday that he was now “strongly considering” a run at the U.S. House, given Berg’s intent to seek the Senate seat.

After Conrad announced his retirement in January, Grindberg circulated a letter among Republican colleagues in his Fargo district to gauge their support. But like many GOP loyals, Grindberg is supporting and respecting Berg’s choice to seek the higher office.

He said he’ll likely finalize his decision about the House race before July 1.

Grindberg, 50, is the executive director for North Dakota State University’s Research & Technology Park. He’s been a state senator representing Fargo since 1992 and previously spent four years as the Republican caucus chairman. He is a Mapleton, N.D., native, who graduated from West Fargo High School.


Kim Koppelman

>> Kim Koppelman (R): This state legislator from West Fargo said he continues to receive “strong encouragement” to run for North Dakota’s House seat.

“Obviously, it’s an honor to be asked,” Koppelman said Friday. “We have made no decision, but we are giving it careful consideration.”

Koppelman, 54, runs a communications consulting firm in West Fargo and has represented the city in the North Dakota Legislature since 1994.


Corey Mock

>> Corey Mock (D): After an aggressive – but unsuccessful – campaign for secretary of state last year, Mock has been mentioned by his party colleagues as a possible contender for the U.S. House in 2012.

While Mock isn’t ruling out a bid, he said Friday “I have no immediate interest in pursuing my party’s endorsement.”

“I have not ruled out any future opportunities, but it is too premature to give any serious consideration to the matter,” Mock said. “I will reevaluate my plans for public service later in the year.”

The 26-year-old works as the executive director for the Third Street Clinic in Grand Forks and has represented the city in the North Dakota Legislature since 2008.


Kelly Schmidt

>> Kelly Schmidt (R): North Dakota’s state treasurer has been receiving a lot of encouragement lately from GOP supporters urging her to run for the House.

Schmidt told me Friday she’s weighing the options and visiting with colleagues to receive their advice.

“I need to evaluate the best ways I could benefit the people of North Dakota,” she said. “A decision will be made, but I don’t foresee it being soon.”

Schmidt, 48, was first elected North Dakota treasurer in 2004 and she won re-election in 2008. She’s the current president of the National Association of State Treasurers.


UNCLEAR: These individuals have been mentioned as potential contenders; however they haven’t commented on where their own interest or intention lies.

>> Given the amount of attention the U.S. House race will have in 2012, there are likely more people considering bids, but they’ve been more quiet about their intentions to this point.



These individuals have stated they have no interest or intention to seek either the House or Senate seat.

> Mac Schneider (D): Schneider, 32, is a Grand Forks lawyer, assistant minority leader for the North Dakota Senate and son of the party chairman. While he’s among a new generation of up-and-comers for the Dem-NPL, Schneider told me last month that he’s focusing on re-election to his district seat in 2012.

>> Wayne Stenehjem (R): Stenehjem, 58, has been North Dakota’s attorney general since 2000. He told me last month he had absolutely no interest in seeking either the House or Senate seat, although many Republicans had said he’d make a formidable candidate for Congress.

>> Bob Stenehjem (R): Stenehjem 59, is the Senate majority leader in the Legislature (and brother to Wayne). He said Saturday: “While it would be a great honor to serve this state in Washington DC. I feel I still have some things I would like to do on the state level and at this time I am planning to seek another term in the state senate.”

>> Scott Stofferahn (D): Stofferahn, 53, is the longtime state director for the retiring Sen. Conrad. He said Friday he’s “not considering either race” at this time. “For the Senate, I support Pam Gulleson – she’s an excellent and formidable candidate,” Stofferahn said.

>> Ryan Taylor (D): North Dakota’s Senate Minority Leader said last month he didn’t see a federal race in his future. Instead, this 40-year-old rancher from Towner, N.D., is probably more apt to seek a statewide office. Democratic-NPL Party Chairman Mark Schneider said Friday Taylor would be a likely competitor in the 2012 gubernatorial race.


There are also at least three others you could add to a “highly unlikely” category. The names of former attorney general Heidi Heitkamp (D), Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R) and Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley (R) have each been floated as possibilities for the federal races.

All three have been virtually silent on their plans for 2012 (none returned messages from Friday seeking comment) – but past statements from them indicate their ambitions are aimed more toward Bismarck than any Capitol Hill office.

When Heitkamp declined to run for Dorgan’s Senate seat last year, she all but confirmed she wanted to run for governor in 2012. Similarly, Wrigley – the former U.S. attorney for North Dakota – has left no secret that he’d like to be governor some day. Dalrymple is finishing the remainder of Hoeven’s gubernatorial term but has yet to announce whether he wants to seek a full term as governor in his own right.

So as for the federal races go, it would surprise many if any of these three vied for a chance on the ballot. But nonetheless, there are clearly many, many others who voters might have to choose from.

Originally posted 8 p.m. May 15
Updated: 9:35 a.m. May 16