Sen. Byron Dorgan’s (D-N.D.) decision to retire at the end of 2010 caught his fellow Senate Democratic leaders by surprise Tuesday.
Sources said the Democratic Policy Committee Chairman had apparently made up his mind before notifying Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other colleagues of his decision, giving them no opportunity to talk him out of leaving open an already vulnerable Democratic seat.
Reid’s statement on Dorgan was gracious, however. “Byron Dorgan is a friend and has been a strong voice for North Dakotans during his 30 years of service in Congress. I respect his decision to pursue other interests and wish him and his family the best in the future,— Reid said.
Sources cautioned against assuming that Dorgan’s departure portended a wave of more Senate Democratic retirements, such as those the House has been experiencing of late.
“It shouldn’t be seen as a sign of things to come, because there are hardly any other candidates for retirement among the folks that are in cycle this year,— said one aide. “His decision is something of an attention-getter because we’ve been used to not having Democratic retirements in the past two [election] cycles.—
Whether more Senate Democrats follow suit, Dorgan’s dilemma has long been brewing. Dorgan is the first elected Democratic Senator this cycle to announce his retirement.
His star appeared to rise in the late 1990s when his good friend, fellow plains state Senator, and Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) appointed him to the No. 5 Democratic leadership spot — the chairmanship of the Democratic Policy Committee.
And the job seemed to mesh with Dorgan’s reputed ambition to one day follow in Daschle’s footsteps and become the party leader. Dorgan’s Web site notes, “Eight of the nine individuals who held the post before Senator Dorgan were current Senate Democratic Leaders, or later became the Senate Democratic Leader. Two later became Vice President, and one — Senator Lyndon Johnson of Texas — went on to become President of the United States.—
But with Daschle’s election defeat in 2004 and Reid’s succession as leader, Dorgan’s influence began to be eclipsed by a new No. 2, Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), whose two successful runs as Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman catapulted him to the No. 3 leadership spot. Reid created a special title for Schumer — Conference Vice Chairman — after winning back the majority in 2006.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) serves as the No. 4 leader, Conference Secretary, a spot previously held by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). Stabenow has said she prefers her current No. 6 spot leading the Steering and Outreach Committee, which performs outreach to outside interests and doles out committee seats to Members of the caucus.
Sources said it was difficult to speculate who Reid might tap to replace Dorgan as DPC chairman at the end of this year, assuming he wins his own tough re-election and remains leader. Though there are a core group of six leaders, Reid’s Tuesday leadership meetings feature nearly a dozen Democratic Senators, including Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), chairman of Outreach; Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), chair of Rural Outreach; Barbara Boxer (Calif.), chief deputy whip; and Deputy Whips Tom Carper (Del.), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Russ Feingold (Wis.).