Timing, Vol. II

North Dakota Democrats are scrambling to find candidates to run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Kent Conrad, as well as Governor and the U.S. House seat. They’d do well to focus first on the Governor’s office, as I mentioned last week. As Democrats have learned in the last decade, you don’t build a party, which is critical to electing other state officials and legislators, without the Governor’s office.

But because it’s an open seat, and because there’s not another John Hoeven on the GOP bench, talk among Democrats turns first to the Senate seat. On the short list tossed out off the cuff by Conrad when he announced his retirement were former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp, her brother Joel, Senate Minority Leader Ryan Taylor (who would probably more likely be a candidate for Governor) and a couple of the second generation of Schneiders from Fargo, Mac and Jasper. Some of them have been the beneficiaries of good timing. Heidi paid some dues running against Bob Peterson for North Dakota Auditor in 1984 (as did Conrad eight years earlier) before being appointed State Tax Commissioner in 1987 when Conrad ascended from that post into the U.S. Senate. Then she was elected Attorney General in 1992 when incumbent Nick Spaeth ran for Governor. Joel was elected to the State Senate from the old District 27 in 1994 when longtime Senator Jim Dotzenrod retired. He was reapportioned into a solid Democratic-NPL District in 2001, and when he retired in 2008, he convinced Dotzenrod to take his old seat back. Dotzenrod, incidentally, should be on somebody’s list for higher office in 2012. He’s never lost an election.

The Schneider cousins haven’t been favored so much with timing as they have with good political skills, although Mac lived in the right place at the right time, and benefited from the retirement of Grand Forks Senator Nick Hacker, winning an open seat in the State Senate in 2008. Jasper had to actually challenge an incumbent Democrat for a State House seat in Fargo’s traditionally Democratic-NPL District 21 at his district convention in 2006, and then beat her in the November election, when she switched parties. He stepped down to take a federal appointment as the state’s Rural Development Director in 2009.  Unfortunately, the timing is not good for either of them this year, or for Joel Heitkamp either. Both Jasper and Joel would have to give up six figure jobs to run, and Mac is up for re-election to his Senate seat, so he’d have to give that up. The timing is good for both Taylor and Heidi to run. Heidi has been doing consulting and speaking engagements and serving on cooperative boards since she left office in 2001. Her husband is a successful family physician. Taylor won his State Senate Seat from District 7 in 2002 fair and square, in a good campaign against incumbent, Ken Solberg, and was re-elected twice, in 2006 and 2010. And he’s a holdover State Senator in 2012 so he’s not risking his Senate seat. More than a few Democrats are salivating over a Heidi for Senate and Ryan for Governor ticket.

Conrad, of course, arguably North Dakota’s best politician ever (that’s saying something, with names like Langer, Burdick and Dorgan as part of our history), also was a huge beneficiary of good timing. You’ll remember that Byron Dorgan moved from State Tax Commissioner to the U.S. House in 1980, when incumbent Mark Andrews moved from the House to the Senate to fill the seat of retiring Senator Milt Young. Conrad was elected to replace Dorgan as Tax Commissioner. Andrews came up for re-election in 1986, and everyone expected Dorgan to make the run against him. Dorgan miscalculated the political climate, declined to run, Conrad ran as the expected sacrificial lamb, and in North Dakota’s biggest political upset ever, defeated Andrews. The day after that election, Dorgan felt a little like Kevin Cramer felt last month. Opportunity missed.

But Conrad, in what seemed as a bit of a desperate move at the time, announced during the campaign that if he was elected, he would not seek re-election unless the nation’s budget deficit came under control. It was a bit like Theodore Roosevelt announcing in 1904 that he would not seek re-election if he was elected that year. Both later regretted their statements. But both stood by their decisions. Conrad dropped his bomb on the opening day of the 1992 Democratic-NPL Convention. The deficit was not under control, and he would not seek re-election. Shocked Democrats did not panic, though. They had a big bench. They endorsed Dorgan for the Senate seat and Earl Pomeroy for Congress. Then, in an almost incredible piece of timing, four months after that convention Senator Quentin Burdick died in office, and the Democratic-NPL party drafted Conrad (with little resistance) to run for his seat in a special election in December. Conrad won, and serves there still, his service uninterrupted since 1986, for the next 22 months at least. Often to Dorgan’s chagrin, Conrad, once viewed as Dorgan’s protégé (his aide June used to mutter “protégé-schmotege” when she heard anyone use that term), was the senior Senator from North Dakota, and Dorgan the junior Senator, for the entire 18 years of Dorgan’s Senate career. Timing.

And what about Pomeroy? Most Democrats say he’s earned his big-time job in a Washington law firm, and is not likely to return to elective politics. Pomeroy himself admits that he’s 58 years old and “doesn’t have any money,” so the law firm/lobbying job will prepare him for retirement. Besides, he was pushing his luck in 2010 anyway. Pomeroy was elected twice to the North Dakota House (1980 and 1982), twice as North Dakota Insurance Commissioner (1984 and 1988) and nine times to the Congress, a total of 13 straight election wins with no losses, before his defeat in 2010. That’s quite a record, or was until last year. The only two living politicians I can think of who can even come close to matching that are a pair of state Legislators, Republican Bob Martinson and Democrat Lyle Hanson, but their wins were all for the Legislature. Pomeroy won 11 straight statewide elections, a pretty amazing record. I don’t think even Ben Meier can top that.

But even if Heitkamp and Taylor agree to run for different offices, there are still a bunch of other slots to fill, most importantly the U.S. House and Lieutenant Governor. Who’s left to do that? Well, there’s Tracy Potter, who paid some dues in 2010 against Hoeven and might feel he has first dibs on the Senate seat, although I don’t see an army of Democrats swarming around him right now. There are 12 State Senators who would like him back in his old Senate seat, which he yielded to Margaret Sitte last year, I can tell you that for sure. There’s Kristin Hedger, who ran for Secretary of State in 2006 and acquitted herself fairly well. She’s kept visible among party faithful while contributing to the management of the family business, Killdeer Mountain Manufacturing and who flirted with a Senate run last year herself.. There’s a little buzz about former Legislator and Dorgan aide Pam Gulleson, and former Legislator and Conrad aide Scott Stofferahn. A whole bunch of Fargo Democrats would like to drag Fargo banker George Sinner Jr., the second son of the former Governor, into the political arena. Another Fargo group has slipped the name of Fargo Mayor and flood hero Dennis Walaker into Democratic-NPL political discussions. He’d likely be a big-time vote-getter in the Valley. A really, really good candidate for any of the top three offices would be former Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson, who has never lost a statewide election either, but he’s happily ensconced in his National Farmers Union office right across the street from the U.S. Capitol. The Lieutenant Governor’s job is one that fills itself, usually picked in a scramble during the State Convention and usually a Democratic-NPL Legislator of the opposite sex of the Governor candidate.

Here’s the bottom line. Somebody, pretty soon, is going to do a poll showing Heidi with really strong numbers. Beating, or at least being really competitive against Dalrymple for Governor and Stenehjem, or maybe even Berg, for Senate. She’s said publicly that if she runs for anything, it will be Governor. But a good showing in a Senate poll will bring the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee to her door with its checkbook wide open. They desperately want to hold Conrad’s seat. In the years since she last ran for Governor, she’s converted a lengthy Rolodex of donors to her Blackberry. And Emily’s List will open its doors the moment she makes an announcement. No matter what she runs for, money won’t be a problem. Finally, Kent Conrad is her best friend. What he advises will be key to her decision. She’s going to be pressed to make a decision soon, probably as soon as the Legislature adjourns, so that Democrats can find candidates for the offices she doesn’t choose, and begin raising funds for that candidate. She’s been accused in the past of being indecisive, of waiting to long. This year, she knows that to win, she needs to move early to start the fundraising process. Timing is critical. But then, it always is.