North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad Not Seeking Re-Election

BY Quinn Bowman and David Chalian  January 18, 2011 at 11:40 AM EDT

Sen. Kent Conrad
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.; Getty Images file photo

North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad, who has served in the Senate for the last 24 years, said Tuesday that he will not seek re-election next year, marking the first Democratic senator to announce his or her retirement ahead of the 2012 election.

In a statement to supporters, the Budget Committee chairman said he is ending his Senate career so that he won’t be distracted by a re-election campaign:

“There are serious challenges facing our State and nation, like a $14 trillion debt and America’s dependence on foreign oil. It is more important I spend my time and energy trying to solve these problems than to be distracted by a campaign for reelection.”

This is a familiar scenario for North Dakota Democrats. Early in the 2010 cycle, Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan announced he would retire after it became clear he was going to face an extraordinarily tough re-election fight. Republican former Gov. John Hoeven now holds that Senate seat after winning 76.2 percent of the vote in November.

“We believe this race represents one of the strongest pickup opportunities for Senate Republicans this cycle and will invest whatever resources are necessary to win next year,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Communications Director Brian Walsh said.

One Democratic strategist tells The Rundown that the party likely won’t cede Conrad’s seat to Republicans early in the cycle as it did with Dorgan’s.

“There are a number of potential Democratic candidates who could make this race competitive while we expect to see a contentious primary battle on the Republican side. North Dakotans have a long history of electing moderate Democrats to the Senate, and we believe they will have an opportunity to keep up that tradition next November,” said Sen. Patty Murray, chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, who broke the retirement news, reported on Jan. 7 that an Iowa group called the American Future Fund was already running ads attacking Conrad.

The AFF commercials, which the group is spending $60,000 on over two weeks, remind North Dakotans that Conrad said back in 1986 that “he would resign if the budget deficit hadn’t fallen.”

The AFF ads go on to attack Conrad for voting for the “wasteful stimulus, massive Wall Street bailouts and the budget-busting health care bill that Americans didn’t want.”

North Dakota has a conservative streak: despite electing Dorgan and Conrad, North Dakotans have not voted for a Democratic candidate for president since Lyndon Johnson was elected in 1964.

Whichever Democrat emerges with the nomination to succeed Conrad, running as a Democrat in a presidential year with Barack Obama at the top of the ticket in North Dakota is going to be a significant uphill challenge.