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By Kristen M. Daum
Sen. Byron Dorgan’s surprise decision that he won’t seek reelection this year sends tidal waves into North Dakota and national politics, creating a potentially dizzying game of musical chairs among the state’s top leadership positions.
North Dakota voters have in recent history elected Democrats to the state’s three congressional positions, but for the first time in nearly two decades a U.S. Senate seat is truly up for grabs by either party.
Many already anticipated a heated Senate race this year, with the possibility of Republican Gov. John Hoeven opposing Dorgan’s once-expected incumbency.
Hoeven previously shied away from commenting on a potential Senate bid, but Tuesday night the governor said there’s news coming on the horizon.
“We have been looking very seriously at the Senate race for some time. People are well aware of that,” Hoeven said. “I expect we’ll have an announcement of our intentions within a couple weeks.”
Republicans have been aggressively encouraging Hoeven to make the leap, and political analysts see him as the likely conservative candidate by an overwhelming margin.
Republicans said Dorgan’s announcement on Tuesday demonstrates Democrats’ current vulnerability in Congress and improves the chances for Republican control in 2011.
“We fully intend to capitalize on this opportunity by continuing to recruit strong candidates who can win these seats in November,” said Brian Walsh, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
If Hoeven campaigns for the U.S. Senate and wins, Lt. Gov. Jack Dalrymple would become governor and then appoint a successor as lieutenant governor, said North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger.
Another Republican possibility for the Senate race could be former U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley, who left his post in September for a job in the private sector but hasn’t ruled out the possibility of future roles in public service.
“I didn’t expect at that time that leaving there would be the last chapter,” Wrigley said Tuesday, adding his decision to run for a public office would not be based on who the other candidates might be.
“I equate the opportunity not with who is or isn’t running, but whether I can make the most difference for the people of North Dakota,” Wrigley said.
Meanwhile, Democrats are left searching for a viable candidate who could actually stand a chance against a potentially formidable Hoeven bid.
“There aren’t many names that carry the kind of recognition and prestige and familiarity like Byron,” said Jim Danielson, professor emeritus of political science at Minnesota State University Moorhead and a longtime political observer.
Shortly after Dorgan’s announcement, political analysts nationwide already were buzzing about the possibility of Rep. Earl Pomeroy stepping up to the plate.
Pomeroy released a statement Tuesday commending Dorgan’s record of service for North Dakotans, but his office had no comment on the speculation of a Senate move.
If Pomeroy did campaign for the Senate, Democrats could risk losing seats in both the House and Senate, when the partisan divide in Congress is already at a tipping point.
“The Democrats were predicted to lose probably three to four states (in November),” Danielson said. “It’s very, very likely now they’re optimistically looking at a 55-vote majority.”
With the aid of two Senate independents, Democrats have had a 60-vote coalition that allows them to overcome threatened Republican filibusters.
Former North Dakota Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, also might be up for consideration against a Republican contender.
Within two hours of Dorgan’s evening announcement, Heitkamp supporters created a Facebook group encouraging her to run. By 9 p.m., it had more than 130 members.
"There’s a possibility,” said Danielson, who added he has talked informally with Heitkamp about potential future campaigns. “Maybe there’s still something burning intensely inside her that might lead her to jump back in.”
Heitkamp did not return a call seeking comment. After serving eight years as attorney general, she lost to Hoeven in the 2000 governor’s race.
Dorgan said in a written statement that his decision to leave the Senate after his third term came from a desire to pursue other interests after a life in public service.
“Although I still have a passion for public service and enjoy my work in the Senate, I have other interests and I have other things outside of public life,” Dorgan said in a statement, adding there is a possibility of teaching or working on energy policy in the private sector.
His Senate counterpart, Democrat Kent Conrad, predicted Dorgan could be on the short list of nominees for a place in President Obama’s Cabinet in the coming years.
“I have a feeling that this will not be the last of his public service,” Conrad said in a statement.