MATTERS AT HAND: A whirlwind week for politics in North Dakota

What a week for politics in North Dakota! Kent Conrad became the last of "The Three Amigos" to announce that he'll leave the U.S. Congress. This means that North Dakota's congressional delegation will be completely new beginning in 2012. And poss...

What a week for politics in North Dakota!

Kent Conrad became the last of "The Three Amigos" to announce that he'll leave the U.S. Congress. This means that North Dakota's congressional delegation will be completely new beginning in 2012.

And possibly completely Republican. That hasn't happened since before 1958, when Quentin Burdick was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives -- at the very start of a political revolution that eventually made North Dakota's delegation completely Democratic, a condition that prevailed from 1986 to 2011.

Today, it's 2-1 Republican. John Hoeven's election to the Senate and Rick Berg's election to the House leaves Conrad as the delegation's only Democrat.

There's been a lot of speculation about whom Republicans might choose to run for Conrad's seat. The list of possibilities would fill up the space available here.


The list of potential Democratic candidates is considerably shorter because the party has done a poor job of developing bench strength compared with Republicans, who used their hold on the governorship to groom a stable of potential candidates.

Perhaps the best prospect for Democrats is Roger Johnson, former state agriculture commissioner. Johnson left that job to become president of the National Farmers Union.

He's the kind of moderate Democrat that farm state voters have often turned to, and he has a solid -- if not passionate -- base in the state. Unlike some other possible candidates, he hasn't lost a statewide election, so he's not "damaged goods."

Three other potential candidates can't make that claim. Heidi Heitkamp lost the 2000 governor's race to Hoeven, Earl Pomeroy lost to Berg and Tracy Potter to Hoeven in 2010.

That pretty well exhausts the well known Democratic possibilities.

Beyond those four, the party would have to turn to less familiar names -- making the challenge of holding Conrad's seat even more daunting.

Of course, the election is 22 months away, and much can happen -- as the sea change between 2008 and 2010 so vividly demonstrates.

As for Conrad himself, I'm satisfied with the explanation for his decision. In a way, it echoes his promise at the start of his senatorial career. If the debt isn't brought under control, he'd quit, Conrad said.


But circumstances allowed him to run, anyway -- but not for his own seat.

Like every other state, North Dakota actually has two seats in the Senate, in our case a Class I and a Class III seat. These were assigned at statehood; the only difference is the year each is filled. Conrad was elected to the Class III seat in 1986. Burdick held the state's Class I seat for 32 years. He died in 1992, just as Conrad's first term was expiring. Conrad ran for the Class III seat -- and won, thereby continuing in the Senate while technically not seeking re-election.

Last week, he repeated his initial reason for stepping down, but with a twist. He wants to concentrate on solving the nation's debt crisis, he said, without being distracted by a campaign.

He also acknowledged that the departure of his colleagues influenced his decision.

In any case, senators, like other people, have a right to make up their own minds about their careers. That's what Conrad did.

His decision created an entirely new situation in the state, of course, clearing the field for a new generation of political leadership. Exactly how this will play out can't be known, of course. In 1986, no one would have predicted that Democrats would dominate the state's congressional delegation for the next quarter century.

While attention has been riveted on senatorial politics, there's been plenty of legislative politics, as well.

The most interesting involves the state's tobacco cessation program established by an initiated measure devoting funds from settlement of lawsuits against the tobacco industry. Heidi Heitkamp was the prime sponsor of the measure --- the same Heitkamp who ran for governor a decade ago.


Republicans introduced a bill to overturn the measure and direct the money instead to the UND School of Medicine -- thus finding money for an undertaking that Rep. Gov. Jack Dalrymple didn't include in his budget while casting sand in Democrat Heitkamp's eye.

It was an adroit political maneuver.

Overturning the measure will require a two-thirds vote in both houses of the Legislature. Republicans have the votes -- if they stick together.

Jacobs is editor and publisher of the Herald.

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