Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sen. Kent Conrad Announces Retirement

From Real Clear Politics.com

By Erin McPike

North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad surprised Democrats this morning by announcing that he will not run for re-election after 24 years in the upper chamber.

Citing the nation's debt of $14 trillion and dependence on foreign oil, Conrad said in a statement, "It is more important I spend my time and energy trying to solve these problems than to be distracted by a campaign for re-election."

In addition to those two issues, Conrad said he'll spend his last two years in the Senate working on a new farm bill and two more local issues - permanent flood control for the Red River Valley and the rising waters in the Devils Lake Basin.

The decision was nonetheless a shocking one, considering Conrad had already spent some campaign cash on radio advertising just last week in preparation for a re-election bid. His ad was in response to early advertising done by the American Future Fund to weaken Conrad ahead of what was expected to be a very competitive campaign; Conrad's war chest stood at $1.8 million as of late September.

Chris Thorne, a former key staffer to Conrad, explained that the AFF ads amounted to nothing more than "a pin prick" and likely wouldn't resonate with North Dakota voters.

Thorne expects Conrad will stay engaged in the national debate.

"He's one of the most intellectually curious members of the Senate," he said. "I can't see him sitting on the sidelines."

Indeed, Conrad is chairman of the Budget Committee and was a leading voice in favor of creating a bipartisan fiscal commission. He recently received an inaugural "Fiscy" award by a committee of several organizations focused on fiscal discipline for his leadership on the issue.

In North Dakota, however, Thorne explained that the economy is humming along compared to most of the rest of the country, and voters there are more focused on local issues like air bases, water issues and highways.

Conrad's retirement leaves a strong pickup opportunity for Republicans in the Senate, but Democrats warn that there is a new guard of younger candidates who could make the race challenging for the GOP.
A leading candidate for Democrats is the more entrenched Heidi Heitkamp, a former attorney general who passed on a Senate run last cycle after Byron Dorgan stepped down. Operatives say if she decides not to run in 2012, she'll have to say why she's refusing this time.

Other than Heitkamp, Jasper Schneider, an Obama administration appointee who serves as state director for USDA rural development is a possibility for Democrats, as is state Sen. Ryan Taylor.

Republicans are looking to Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk, who is already exploring a bid, and Rick Berg, who just began his first term in the House. Top House GOP leadership sources say Berg is among the brightest of the big new class of freshmen. He secured a rare post on the powerful Ways and Means Committee.
Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at emcpike@realclearpolitics.com.

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