Tuesday, January 18, 2011

What Conrad's Retirement Means for 2012

From Real Clear Politics.com

By Sean Trende

Senator Kent Conrad surprised observers today by announcing that he is ending a 24-year stint as a senator and will be retiring at the end of his term in 2012.

This sets up the second prime Republican pickup opportunity in North Dakota in as many cycles. Although the state sent two Democrats to the Senate from 1986 through 2010 and has toyed with voting for Democrats for president (Bill Clinton lost the state by only six points in 1996), it has taken on a decidedly Republican tilt over the past decade.

Compounding the Democrats' challege of retaining this seat, the party's bench in the state is very thin. Democrats like Conrad and his former colleague, Byron Dorgan, won statewide office before being elected to the Senate. Dorgan became tax commissioner of North Dakota in the late 1960s before going on to the House of Representatives in 1980, while Conrad succeeded Dorgan in that position before upsetting a weakened GOP incumbent in 1986 (Conrad actually won the Senate seat now held by John Hoeven first, retired in 1992 and was succeeded by Dorgan, and then ran for his current seat in 1994 following the death of longtime Democratic Senator Quentin Burdick).

Today, however, Republicans hold nine of the 10 statewide offices - their one miss is for superintendant of public instruction. Representative Earl Pomeroy, the longtime heir apparent to Conrad and Dorgan, lost his re-election campaign by nine points in 2010. And Democrats hold only 37 of 141 seats in the state legislature.
Finally, demographics are an issue. North Dakota has always been a Republican state, but that was only because of sectional concerns. The real powerbroker in the state was the Nonpartisan League, whose platform was Populist-Socialist; this is why North Dakota has a state bank, state grain elevators, and a ban on corporate farming. Conrad and Dorgan were squarely in the NPL tradition.

Many older voters recalled this tradition; North Dakota was one of the few states in the 2004 elections where young voters voted more heavily for President Bush than did voters over 60. (President Obama barely carried 18-29 year olds). In other words, the Democratic/Progressive base in the state is dying off.

If Pomeroy tries for a comeback, Democrats will have a shot at the seat, though given his performance in 2010 against a fairly obscure candidate, the Republican nominee will still start out as a favorite. When asked by Politico whether or not he would run for the seat, Pomeroy said, "I’m about two weeks into a new job. I’ve changed course and I’m not looking back."

Assuming Senator Dorgan doesn’t follow Conrad’s 1992-94 strategy and run for this seat (which seems unlikely), the only other “top-tier” option for Democrats would be former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp, who lost the 2000 governor’s race to Hoeven by 10 points in a year that George W. Bush was beating Al Gore by 37 points in the state.

Republicans have a plethora of potential candidates - Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk is already forming an exploratory committee and numerous others are considering a run - but none has the massive bipartisan appeal that Hoeven did.
Sean Trende is Senior Elections Analyst for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com.

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