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Group of N.D. GOP lawmakers urges Berg to run for U.S. Senate

A sizable group of North Dakota's Republican lawmakers wants Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., to run for the state's open U.S. Senate seat next year. A who's who list of GOP politicians, including most statewide officials and the bulk of the Republican ma...

Rick Berg celebrates win (2010)
Rick Berg and his wife Tracy and son Jack take the stage at the Fargo Holiday Inn after winning the race for the U.S. House in November 2010. David Samson/The Forum

A sizable group of North Dakota's Republican lawmakers wants Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., to run for the state's open U.S. Senate seat next year.

A who's who list of GOP politicians, including most statewide officials and the bulk of the Republican majority in the North Dakota House and Senate, signed a letter that urges the freshman congressman to run for the Senate seat that retiring Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., has held since 1986.

"It is for the same reasons that North Dakotans elected you to the U.S. House that we need you to run for the U.S. Senate," they wrote.

But Berg is staying mum on the political implications of the letter, issuing a one-sentence statement Tuesday saying he and his wife, Tracy, "are incredibly humbled by the outpouring of support and the confidence so many North Dakotans have expressed from across the state."

And Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk said he's not going to change his plans as he gears up to formally announce his Senate campaign.


"Our decision to move forward is based on what we think we can do," he said. "It will have no bearing on what anybody else does."

'He has our support'

Rep. RaeAnn Kelsch, R-Mandan, said she had talked with other legislators about circulating a letter like this, and decided this week to collect signatures before the session comes to an end.

"Before my colleagues left town, I thought now's a good time to rally some support for Rick and say, 'We think it would be a good idea for you to run for the U.S. Senate,'" she said.

The letter doesn't offer an endorsement of Berg in the Senate race, but instead praises him for his victory over Democratic incumbent Earl Pomeroy in last year's "historic election" and said he's already made "tremendous strides in changing the mindset and direction of Washington."

But "it is clear that the fight to get our country back on track current rests with the United States Senate," the letter said.

Kelsch said she thinks competition is "healthy" for the party and said she hopes other candidates will seek the GOP endorsement next year.

But she said it wasn't hard to find lawmakers willing to support Berg -- by Tuesday afternoon, nearly all of the 69 Republican members of the House had signed the letter, as did more than a dozen senators and seven statewide officials.


"What we're saying is that he has our support as he's considering this and making that decision," she said.

Sen. Lonnie Laffen, R-Grand Forks, said he signed on because he thinks Berg has "great experience" -- besides representing Fargo in the North Dakota Legislature for 26 years, Berg has a business background and grew up in the small town of Hettinger, N.D.

"I think he knows our state better than most people," he said. "I think all those things make him one of our strongest candidates."

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem also signed the letter, saying he's always thought Berg would be the "obvious and likely" Republican choice to run for the Senate. Stenehjem himself has often been mentioned as a possible Senate contender, but said he "thoroughly" enjoys his current job.

"Not every person who holds a political office is looking for the next one," he said.

Stenehjem said he sees the letter as an "encouragement" for Berg to get into the Senate race and said he thinks other Republicans might be discouraged from seeking the party endorsement if Berg does decide to campaign for Conrad's seat.

"Rick stepped up to the plate and took on a popular incumbent and won in a hard-fought contest," he said. "I think he will be shown a lot of deference because he did that."

Kalk's still in


North Dakota's 2012 Senate race began heating up in January when Conrad announced he wouldn't seek re-election -- news that prompted a wave of speculation on who might run for the seat that Democrats have held for decades.

But by the time Conrad made his announcement, Kalk had already formed an exploratory committee and began raising money for a Senate campaign that he'll formally announce tonight in Fargo.

"The fact of the matter is we stepped out there early," he said. "Now that Sen. Conrad is not running, I think you're going to see a lot of other Republicans jump into the race."

Kalk said even if Berg does enter the Senate race, he's determined to stick it out and let the delegates decide who to support during the statewide Republican convention in Bismarck next March.

"The delegates will decide this, not just one or two lawmakers or legislators," he said. "Our focus is on the U.S. Senate, period. We made a plan, and we're going to stick with it."

Kalk's colleagues on the Public Service Commission, Kevin Cramer and Tony Clark, both signed the letter to Berg.

Cramer said he encouraged Kalk to enter the Senate race and said competition's "great" in the party endorsement process. Still, he said he didn't want to pretend to be "neutral" in this issue.

"I think at the end of the day that either one of them would be a fine candidate," he said. "But I think in this case, Rick makes a better candidate."


Republican Party Chairman Stan Stein said the timing of Kalk's campaign announcement and the lawmakers' letter to Berg -- nearly a year before delegates will vote to select the party's endorsed Senate candidate -- suggest it will be an "active" next couple of years in North Dakota politics.

"It will be up to the Republicans at the state convention to select who's going to run," he said. "I have complete faith in their decisions."

Johnson reports on local politics. Reach him at (701) 780-1105; (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or send e-mail to rjohnson@gfherald.com .

Rick Berg with John Boehner
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio participates in a ceremonial swearing in with Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

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