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POLITICAL SURPRISE: Dorgan calls end to long political career

In what is being called a "shocker," a "bombshell" and "amazing" by political insiders and observers from North Dakota to Washington, longtime U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., announced late Tuesday afternoon he will not run for re-election thi...

In what is being called a "shocker," a "bombshell" and "amazing" by political insiders and observers from North Dakota to Washington, longtime U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., announced late Tuesday afternoon he will not run for re-election this year.

It was a move no one but his family saw coming.

After 40 years in elected office -- 10 as North Dakota's tax commissioner, 12 in the U.S. House and 18 in the U.S. Senate by the end of this year -- it's time for him to pursue other things, including writing a book, Dorgan said in a written statement. Dorgan was in Washington on Tuesday, although the Senate doesn't go back in session until the middle of the month. He was not available for comment, except for his written statement, his staff said.

"Over this holiday season, I have come to the conclusion, with the support of my family, that I will not be seeking another term in the U.S. Senate in 2010," Dorgan said in the news release that stirred comment all over the blogosphere and news media. "It is a hard decision to make after 30 years in the Congress, but I believe it is the right time for me to pursue these other interests."

The fact that two polls recently showed him trailing expected challenger, Republican Gov. John Hoeven, by 20 points among voters has nothing to do with his decision, Dorgan said.

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"Frankly, I think if I had decided to run for another term in the Senate I would be re-elected."

But Hoeven, in his biggest step yet after months of not saying anything about a possible challenge of Dorgan, told the Herald on Tuesday he would announce within two weeks whether he would run for the seat.

But Dorgan, 67 and a 1965 UND graduate, said re-upping for another six-year term doesn't seem like the commitment he should make now. He still likes the job, he said. "But I feel that after serving 30 years (in Congress) I want to make time for some other priorities."

Those include a good book contract, he said, that comes after success with two political books.

But stepping down from his powerful position in the Senate controlled by Democrats who need the 60 members to keep control the Republican minority surprised friends and political opponents and raised lots of questions about how it will all shake out.

Especially when Dorgan has never been seriously challenged, never gotten less than 65 percent of the vote.

In the state, political friends were stunned.

"I'm amazed," said former Gov. Bill Guy. "I had no indication that was going to happen."

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Guy, who appointed Dorgan state tax commissioner in 1969 and who has been a sort of political mentor ever since, said he had chatted with Dorgan a few months ago when the senator was in Fargo and got no signals about this.

"I wonder why," Guy said of Dorgan's decision. "He's recognized as one of the most intelligent legislators that we have in the Senate. He was a leader. I can't conceive of him giving up that responsible feeling of leadership that he has."

Thinking a moment, Guy said, perhaps only half-joking: "Unless he wants to be president."

More seriously, Guy said he wonders why.

"I would think the only reason Byron Dorgan would step down would be if he was interested in, and assured of, still greater responsibilities in government," Guy said.

Former Gov. George Sinner joined Guy in his reaction. "I'm pretty shocked myself," Sinner said Tuesday night. But a friend told him once to never run for a third term, Sinner said. "It's too hard on your kids. You block the sun for your kids."

He's sure such family considerations came into Dorgan's decision, Sinner said.

"But the country is going to be far poorer without him. He was one of those rare people who really understood what this country's government is all about."

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He knows Republicans who voiced admiration for Dorgan as a fair-minded and smart senator with common sense of the Midwest, Sinner said.

Dorgan came from the southwestern part of the state where the populist Non-Partisan League was formed to fight Eastern interests that seemed to be keeping down the struggling farmers of the High Plains, Sinner said.

"He would fight just as hard for the little guy," Sinner said. "He would fight for the big guy, too, if he was getting cheated."

The decision was no surprise, however, to Dorgan's family.

His brother, Darrell Dorgan, in Bismarck, said Tuesday he's happy for his brother, who now has opportunities to do things that the rigorous schedule of a Senator didn't allow.

His brother took his commitments seriously, which meant a life of stress and lots of travel between Washington and his home state.

"He works hard at this and has never slowed down, and you reach a certain point where you look beyond," Darrell Dorgan said.

Dorgan's decision even got President Barack Obama's attention. In a news release, Obama praised Dorgan for issues from "fighting for our energy future to standing with North Dakota's families through difficult economic times. ... He has also been a champion for our family farmers and a powerful voice for Indian Country."

Dorgan's decision also breaks up the state's congressional trio of Democrats who have run together, informally and formally, for 35 years or so.

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., started out working for Dorgan in the tax commissioner's office and succeeded him in that post, before getting elected to the U.S. Senate. U.S. Rep. Earl Pomeroy is a protégé of both Dorgan and Conrad, and the three have seemed politically invincible in a state that otherwise is Republican, including voting for Republican candidates for President.

In 1974, when Dorgan first sought a U.S. House seat -- unsuccessfully against Republican Mark Andrews -- Conrad was his campaign manager and Earl Pomeroy, still a UND student, drove the car.

Pomeroy, of course, already is being mentioned as the automatic Democrat to run for the seat. He told WDAZ-TV Tuesday he "had no clue" that Dorgan was going to announce he wouldn't run again.

Republicans, meanwhile, smell blood in the water.

Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, released a statement that Dorgan's announcement "highlights just how vulnerable both Senate and House Democrats have become since deciding to walk in lockstep with President Obama's government-run policies."

"While Sen. Dorgan might be the first Democrat to announce his retirement this year, I predict he will not be the last as more and more Americans start moving away from the Democratic Party's liberal agenda and toward the Republican Party's core principles of less government, lower taxes and greater personal responsibility," Steele said.

Mark Schneider, chairman of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party, said in a news release that "there are few North Dakotans who have had a larger impact on our state and our nation than Sen. Dorgan."

"While the political implications of Sen. Dorgan's decision are significant, there will be time to address those issues in the coming weeks."

But political experts on both sides say Dorgan's move will make life more difficult for Democrats, who despite their lock right now in Washington, need all 60 party votes in the Senate -- which include two independents who vote with the Democrats - to control legislation.

Beyond the basic math, Dorgan, along with his colleague and friend, Sen. Kent Conrad, had built a reputation in Washington perhaps disproportionate to small state North Dakota, as a top Senator who came across less partisan than many, but canny, competent and smart and willing to work with Republicans.

Often quoted in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, appearing on television news shows in a way out of proportion to North Dakota's small size, Dorgan was credited with warning about the U.S. housing and banking crises years ago while Republicans and many of his Democratic colleagues were urging the easing of regulation during boom years.

He also took some teasing in some political satire magazines for his well-coiffed comb-over that went well with his businesslike, buttoned-down profile.

Dorgan made big news Tuesday with his announcement.

Congressional Quarterly reported that Dorgan "dropped a bombshell. "

"The departure of the influential senator, who chairs the Indian Affairs Committee and serves in leadership as head of the Democratic Policy Committee, gives Republicans a major opportunity to take the seat in the Republican-leaning state," wrote Emily Cadei on the Quarterly's Web site, CQ Politics.

Two of the top political blogs in Minnesota quickly reacted, with similar views.

Scott Johnson, one of the founders of the nationally popular conservative blog, www.powerlineblog.com , reveled in Dorgan's announcement, saying it appeared that Republicans now could pick up the Senate seat, and, if Pomeroy runs for the Senate, also the House seat.

Johnson, who grew up in Moorhead, said it appears to be part of a Republican re-trenchment after Democrats took control of Washington two years ago and that Hoeven's threat affected Dorgan.

"Dorgan's statement to the contrary notwithstanding, my guess is that Dorgan saw the writing on the wall," Johnson wrote.

On the liberal news blog, www.minnpost.com , longtime Minneapolis political journalist Eric Black wrote that Dorgan's surprise announcement "creates a very strong likelihood of a Republican pickup of a Senate seat."

And Black, like Scott Johnson, voiced skepticism -- "Hmmmm" -- of Dorgan's assertion that the bad poll numbers didn't influence his decision not to run.

Despite the recent polls that showed apparent weakness by Dorgan in the next election, his history belies it, and many political observers said they couldn't believe the polls.

Throughout his career, Dorgan has had little trouble keeping his seat.

In the last election, in 2004, he beat Republican Mike Liffrig handily, 68 percent to 32 percent. That bested the 1998 win, when he was re-elected for the first time by a margin of 63 percent to 35 percent over Republican challenger, state legislator Donna Nalewaja.

In 1974, as state tax commissioner, Dorgan ran for the U.S. House against Republican Mark Andrews and lost. When Andrews ran for the Senate in 1980, Dorgan ran again and won the House seat. His lowest vote percentage in a House election was 65 percent against Ed Schafer in 1990.

Republicans in the state often accused Dorgan of posing as a moderate or conservative when speaking to North Dakotans, and then voting with liberal Democrats. Other Republicans praised Dorgan for using his seniority and reputation to stick up for North Dakota's interests in Congress.

Tuesday, Gov. Hoeven released a short statement praising Dorgan.

Dorgan grew up in Regent, in southwestern North Dakota, where his father ran the Farmers Union Oil store and the family raised cattle and horses, said his brother, Darrell Dorgan.

Dorgan is known for keeping much of his personal life, his family and his faith, quite private. He and his wife, Kim, have a son, Brendon, and daughter, Haley, who are in their 20s. Dorgan's son, Scott, from his first marriage, lives in the Twin Cities; his oldest child, Shelly, died at 23 unexpectedly from a heart problem.

Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 237; or send e-mail to slee@gfherald.com .

Dorgan at August 2009 heatlh care reform meeting
Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota at a health care reform public meeting in August. Dorgan announced in a statement Tuesday that he will not seek re-election to the U.S. Senate. (Herald file photo by Eric Hylden)

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