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Posted at 9:33 AM ET, 01/18/2011

Kent Conrad to retire in 2012

By Chris Cillizza

North Dakota Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad is retiring. Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post

Updated at 1:29 p.m.

North Dakota Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad announced today that he will not seek reelection, creating a potentially prime pickup opportunity for Republicans in a GOP-leaning state.

"After months of consideration, I have decided not to seek reelection in 2012," Conrad said in a letter to constituents. "There are serious challenges facing our state and nation, like a $14 trillion debt and America's dependence on foreign oil. It is more important I spend my time and energy trying to solve these problems than to be distracted by a campaign for reelection."

President Obama said in a statement that he was "saddened" about the news of Conrad's retirement but added: "I look forward to working with him during the next two years on the important issues facing our country."

Conrad, who currently chairs the Senate Budget Committee, has been in office since 1986 and risen to become one of the most influential -- and intellectual -- policy makers operating in the nation's capital.

Conrad had been open about his ambivalence about running for another term and had taken several actions in recent months that suggested he was leaning against running again.

Conrad turned down a chance to chair the Senate Agriculture Committee -- an industry of huge import in North Dakota -- to stay on at the helm of the Budget committee and supported the debt commission report, a decision that would have almost certainly put him in political hot water in the context of a political campaign.

Those doubts almost certainly increased following a 2010 election that decimated the Democratic party.

Former Sen. Byron Dorgan retired in the face of a challenge from popular Governor-now-Senator John Hoeven while former Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D) was defeated by Rick Berg.

Outside interest groups -- the conservative American Future Fund and liberal-aligned Commonsense Ten -- have already run ads in North Dakota, suggesting that the race would be a major priority for both national parties.

And, Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk (R) had already announced an exploratory committee to pursue a challenge to Conrad. The GOP field is likely to expand considerably in the wake of Conrad's retirement. One name already being mentioned is former Gov. Ed Schafer who served as the secretary of agriculture in the Bush Administration.

"Senate Republicans fully expected North Dakota to be a major battleground in 2012, but Senator Conrad's retirement dramatically reshapes this race in the Republicans' favor," said National Republican Senatorial Committee communications director Brian Walsh.

Among Democrats, Pomeroy as well as former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp and her brother Joel Heitkamp are seen as possibilities.

Democrats insist they will contest the seat with no Hoeven-like figure on the horizon for Republicans. "There are a number of potential Democratic candidates who could make this race competitive while we expect to see a contentious primary battle on the Republican side," said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chair Patty Murray (Wash).

Conrad is the first Democrat to decide not to seek reelection. Last week, Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) announced she would not run again. There are 23 Democrats and Democratic-aligned independents up for reelection in 2012 as compared to 10 Republicans.

By Chris Cillizza  | January 18, 2011; 9:33 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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