Timing, Vol. I

Of all the participant or spectator sports I know of, politics is the one, I think, in which timing is the most important. Politicians come and go. Elections are won and lost. There are many factors which figure into the eventual outcome of an election, but it almost always starts with timing. Some examples.

Kevin Cramer was appointed to the North Dakota Public Service Commission in the summer of 2003 to replace Leo Reinbold. When I called him shortly after his appointment to congratulate him on the appointment, he told me two things:

1. “This was the easiest appointment John Hoeven is ever going to have to make.” That was in reference to the dues Cramer had paid to the Republican Party over the years: a successful term as State Chairman and two runs against Earl Pomeroy for Congress, the first of which he sought, and the second for which he accepted a party draft. He was the logical choice. Likely no on else was even considered.

2. “I’m not going to make a career out of serving on the Public Service Commission.” That was in reference to his political ambitions, to one day represent North Dakota in Our Nation’s Capital.

Kevin bided his time there, though. He successfully sought re-election in 2004, and then when the anticipated Republican banner year of 2010 came along, he announced he would not seek re-election, instead seeking his party’s nomination for the U.S. House of Representatives, a nomination which, by all rights, probably should have been his, and probably would have resulted in his election to Congress. But he didn’t count on State Representative Rick Berg coming along and calling in all his chits from his 26 years in the Legislature, and outworking him in the district conventions. Berg won the nomination and was elected to Congress.

Kevin, meanwhile, changed his mind about not continuing his public service—$85,000 a year jobs aren’t that easy to come by in a recession, even in North Dakota—and successfully sought re-election to his PSC seat.

A couple years earlier, back in 2008, Kevin’s sometimes-nemesis, fellow Commissioner Susan Wefald, decided to retire, and voters elected a retired U.S. Marine officer, Brian Kalk, to fill her seat. Kalk, it turns out, also has political ambitions. It seems like these guys like to get elected to the PSC, but see that pretty boring job as a stepping stone to higher office. That’s not really new news; Republican Dick Elkin ran unsuccessfully against Art Link for Governor in 1976, and Democrat Bruce Hagen, who served about 150 years on the PSC, ran unsuccessfully against Mark Andrews for Congress in 1978, about 15 years into his service on the PSC. Shortly after the New Year in 2011, Kalk, smelling blood on the water after the 2010 election, announced he was planning to run against Kent Conrad for the U.S. Senate. And then Conrad dropped his bombshell: He was retiring at the end of his term.

There were only two Republicans in North Dakota who were extremely unhappy with Conrad’s decision. One was his former mother-in-law, an active Republican who adores her former son-in-law. The other was Kevin Cramer. Because Cramer, who was quietly retching in a corner of his office after hearing the announcement, had been trumped by fellow Commissioner Kalk, who quickly put his campaign website online, and claimed this year’s PSC stepping stone for himself. Kalk has been active in Republican politics for about three years; Cramer almost 30. But there’s no way Cramer can get in this race now. It just wouldn’t do for two of the three PSC members to be running for the same higher office at the same time. Kalk may not win his party’s endorsement. But it won’t be Cramer who beats him. Timing.

So what about the rest of the Republican ticket next year? Here’s what some of my Republican friends say.

The odds of Congressman Rick Berg making the jump to the Senate are probably 50-50. Berg, likely the GOP’s best vote getter next year, would face big-time charges of being opportunistic, but the thought of running only every six years instead of every two is a big lure. But there’s some talk that Berg may not be a “lifer” in Washington, and that a couple of terms in Congress might be enough for him. He may not want to miss his son’s high school years sitting in an apartment in Washington. That could keep him in the House for another term, or even two, before returning to his successful business career in Fargo. Also facing the opportunism problem is the newly appointed Lieutenant Governor, Drew Wrigley. Wrigley’s ambitious, and will be squirming a little if he has to sit through four more years of being Jack Dalrymple’s Lieutenant Governor. When I congratulated him the other night, I told him I was glad he got the appointment because it made politics in North Dakota more interesting. He responded jokingly, “Yeah, now I suppose I have to run for the Senate.” At least I THINK he was joking.

Dalrymple’s choice, my friends say, is between running for re-election or going back to Casselton to live the life of a semi-retired gentleman farmer. He’s not a likely candidate for a Washington job. He is, though, my Democrat friends say, the candidate they’d most like to run against in 2012. He kept a fairly low profile as Lieutenant Governor for ten years, he’s virtually disappeared from the news since the Legislature came to town (although he has time to make up for that after April) and he hasn’t been on a statewide ballot by himself since he ran against Conrad for the Senate in the 1992 special election to fill Quentin Burdick’s seat. He’s one of North Dakota’s least-known Governors ever.

So, if Dalrymple, Wrigley and Berg stay put, who’s the odds-on Republican candidate for Conrad’s Senate seat? Kalk has announced. Fargo Senator Tony Grindberg has expressed interest. But most feel that the nomination probably goes to Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem if he wants it, and a lot of folks think he does. If Berg decides to make his move, though, Kalk may have the inside track. Stenehjem seems unlikely to want to campaign every two years for Congress. Nor would he be likely to run for Governor if Dalrymple decides to move to the Senate. People have said for years that Stenehjem is the likely choice to follow Hoeven in the Governor’s office, but my friends seem to think that’s not the case. It may be that’s why Dalrymple brought Wrigley out to the Lieutenant Governor’s office: to groom a successor for four years down the road, or next year if Dalrymple decides two years is enough.

In reality, although everyone talks about the Democrats having a weak bench (more about them next week), the Republicans don’t go much deeper than this. There don’t seem to be any more emerging Republican Legislators, so holdover Tax Commissioner Cory Fong seems to be about the only other possible contender. Insurance Commissioner Adam Hamm and Public Service Commissioner Tony Clark have to get themselves re-elected before they go anywhere else. Al Jaeger and Kelly Schmidt are unlikely federal candidates.

It all makes 2012 a bit of an interesting year, politically, if the Democrats get their shit together. There are two prizes for North Dakota Democrats: Governor and Senator. They know that if they are to rebuild their party, Governor is most important. John Hoeven, who will be absent from the ballot next year, has proven that. Hamm, Fong, Ag Commissioner Doug Goehring, Dalrymple and Wrigley all owe their jobs to Hoeven. Oh, yeah, and Cramer. It really is all about timing.

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