Sen. Kent Conrad, who has represented North Dakota for some three decades, plans to retire next year, giving Republicans a golden opportunity for a pickup in the conservative-leaning state.
Conrad, a moderate in his fifth term, is a leading spokesman on budget and economic issues for the Senate majority. He is chairman of the budget panel and a senior member of the powerful Finance Committee.
With former Sen. Byron Dorgan and former Rep. Earl Pomeroy, Conrad gave the rural prairie state influence in Congress well beyond what one would expect based on its small population. Dorgan retired last year and was replaced by Republican Sen. John Hoeven, while Pomeroy was defeated by Republican Rick Berg.
"There are serious challenges facing our state and nation, like a $14 trillion debt and America's dependence on foreign oil," Conrad said in a letter to constituents and reported by the Washington Post
. "It is more important that I spend my time and energy trying to solve these problems than to be distracted by a campaign for reelection."
President Obama said he was sad to see the 62-year-old Conrad go. During his time in the Senate, Conrad demonstrated "an unmatched dedication to putting our country on a sound fiscal path and a commmitment to meeting our nation's energy challenges," the president said in a statement.
The GOP jumped on the news. "In the wake of Sen. Hoeven's overwhelming victory last year, Senate Republicans fully expected North Dakota to be a major battleground in 2012, but Sen. Conrad's retirement dramatically reshapes this race in the Republican favor," said Brian Walsh, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
In a statement from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Chairman Patty Murray said, "The people of North Dakota had a stalwart fighter in Kent Conrad and the entire caucus will miss him. 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. North Dakotans have a long history of electing moderate Democrats to the Senate, and we believe they will have an opportunity to keep up that tradition" in 2012. Conrad won with 69 percent of the vote in his 2006 race.
Pomeroy, who served nine terms in the House, is among the Democrats being mentioned as a possible contender for Conrad's seat. North Dakota Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk is the first Republican out of the gate, having already formed a Senate "exploratory" committee, the Post said.
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