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MATTERS AT HAND: Both parties could squander their opportunities in 2010

North Dakotans might be feeling a little dizzy with all the political news in the past month. It wouldn't be the first time. And they'd hardly be lonely. Politics have proceeded at such a pace at other times and in other places. In 1992 and 1993,...

North Dakotans might be feeling a little dizzy with all the political news in the past month.

It wouldn't be the first time.

And they'd hardly be lonely.

Politics have proceeded at such a pace at other times and in other places.

In 1992 and 1993, for instance, North Dakota had four U.S. senators in a short time. One of them, briefly occupied both of the state's seats.

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In 1986, there was an upset in the U.S. Senate race. North Dakotans turned out an incumbent -- a rare occurrence in the state's political history.

Both 1980 and 1984 brought big upsets in the election for governor. And in 1984, the state had two governors simultaneously, until the state Supreme Court settled the question.

But none compares with the mid-1930s. Within 12 months in 1934 and 1935, North Dakota had four governors.

As for other places:

This year, Massachusetts sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate for the first time in almost 40 years.

In Minnesota, a front-runner, Norm Coleman, dropped out of the race for governor.

But still, North Dakotans might be feeling a little dizzy.

Sen. Byron Dorgan's abrupt announcement that he wouldn't seek re-election set off a scramble in both parties.

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Republican Gov. John Hoeven said he'd run for the seat. He might have whether Dorgan stayed or not -- but Dorgan's departure cleared his way. He's now the front-runner, far and away.

Rep. Earl Pomeroy, a Democrat, quickly announced that he'd run for re-election to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he's amassed seniority enough to earn a seat on the Ways and Means Committee, arguably the most important in Congress.

That didn't stop Republicans from coveting his seat, of course. There are three announced candidates so far, with more to come, probably.

Democrats don't have a Senate candidate so far, although some possibilities have been mentioned.

Fundamentally, the situation is the same for both parties. The 2010 election cycle provides an opportunity for both of the parties to build bench strength - to develop new talent, in other words.

This is particularly important for the Democrats, who've been out of power in Bismarck for 18 years.

Republicans used this time in power to identify and promote young people. In fact, that may turn out to be Hoeven's greatest contribution to the party.

But only maybe.

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Republicans seem likely to squander the opportunity this talent presents them. So far, the candidates against Pomeroy are three, an unknown, a former legislative leader who's managed to alienate people in both parties, and a statewide office-holder who's lost twice against Pomoery.

Where's the formula for victory here?

It can happen only if North Dakotans blame Pomeroy for the nation's ills -- and they might.

But they might not, especially if the Republicans don't offer an attractive alternative.

Democrats are in essentially the same fix, but in a different race.

Democrats must find a candidate to oppose Hoeven. This candidate will almost certainly lose.

The smart move is to use the race as an opportunity to improve the party's prospects in 2012.

They might not do it, though. Last week, a prominent Democrat circulated a letter describing a "consensus candidate" against Hoeven.

The candidate lost to Hoeven in the governor's race in 2000 and hasn't been on a statewide ballot since. It's hard to imagine what state issues such a candidate might raise, so the campaign would necessary be based on the so-called federal issues, health care, for example, or other Obama initiatives.

This is not likely to be a winning formula.

The opportunity for Democrats is to identify a candidate, invest in that candidate, build name identification for that candidate and aim for 2012.

Republicans did that in 1998, when Ed Schafer ran for the U.S. House of Representatives. He lost, but two years later, he became governor, setting the stage for Republican dominance in state politics -- though not in the federal offices.

The complexity of these options distinguishes the North Dakota situation from some others, and the uncertainly of the outcome makes this year different than other years.

In terms of individual opportunity, of course, 2010 may be a free-for-all.

Party-building, and future success for both parties, argues for a more deliberate approach.

That's what makes 2010 so interesting.

Let's relax and see what happens.

Jacobs is editor and publisher of the Herald.

Related Topics: JOHN HOEVENMIKE JACOBS
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