Confident GOP Still Without Conrad Foe

Posted January 7, 2005 at 5:44pm

Energized by the defeat of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) in South Dakota last cycle, North Dakota Republicans believe they can oust Sen. Kent Conrad (D) in 2006, even though neither of the state’s GOP titans — current Gov. John Hoeven and former Gov. Ed Schafer— appears likely to run.

Hoeven spokesman Don Canton said last week that “the governor is focusing all his time and effort on his job as governor,” though he did leave the door for a Senate bid open a crack.

“We are not going to speculate on something down the line,” Canton said.

Schafer, who was unsuccessfully courted to run against Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) in 2004, said: “I just don’t have any kind of interest in it. … I am an executive branch kind of guy.”

Aside from his commitments in the private sector (Schafer is president of Extend America, a wireless phone and Internet company), he also has a personal connection that could keep him out of the race. Schafer’s sister, Pam, is Conrad’s first wife.

Even without Hoeven or Schafer in the race, Conrad will be in for a fight, according to Jason Stverak, executive director of the North Dakota Republican Party.

“Many people saw what happened in South Dakota,” he said. “In 2006 [we want] to have another Dakota miracle.”

Daschle’s ouster by former Rep. John Thune (R) was the surprise of the 2004 cycle, marking the first time since 1952 that a Senate leader had been defeated for re-election.

On its face, the political situation in South Dakota last cycle does have some similarities to the expected landscape in North Dakota come 2006.

In South Dakota, the special election victory of Rep. Stephanie Herseth (D) in the summer of 2004 gave Democrats total control of the state’s Congressional delegation despite the Mount Rushmore State’s decided Republican tilt on the presidential level.

Thune and his GOP allies made sure that the state’s voters, who had given President Bush 60 percent in 2000, were aware of that seeming contradiction.

Similarly in North Dakota, Democrats have controlled both Senate seats as well as the state’s at-large House seat since 1986, even as Bush won the state by 28 points in 2000 and 27 points in 2004 — his second largest margin in a state represented by a Democratic Senator up for re-election in 2006.

“There is a desire among our grassroots volunteers to begin taking back those seats,” said Stverak. “I cannot overstate the impact of the grassroots organization put in place to defeat Senator Daschle.”

Conrad rejected the comparison to his neighbor to the south in an interview last week.

“The best indication of how North Dakota will vote is how North Dakota did vote, not how South Dakota voted,” said Conrad, pointing out that Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) took 68 percent and 60 percent, respectively, in their re-election bids last cycle.

Cara Morris, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, echoed that sentiment.

“Republicans are mistaken when they compare North and South Dakota,” she said. “North Dakota’s moral compass points more towards Minnesota than it does South Dakota — in North Dakota a populist message works.”

The biggest problem facing North Dakota Republicans is that they have no potential candidate with the star power of Thune considering the Senate contest. In 2004, Thune was coming off a 524-vote defeat at the hands of Sen. Tim Johnson (D). He also held the state’s at-large House seat from 1996 until 2002.

Most Republicans acknowledge that any candidate other than Thune would have come up short against Daschle, who had served in the Senate for 18 years. The same seems likely in the case of Conrad, who has held elective office in North Dakota for 24 years.

In the likely event neither Hoeven nor Schafer makes the contest, other names mentioned include state Rep. Gene Nicholas; Lt. Gov. Jack Dalrymple; Doug Burgum, the head of Microsoft Great Plains; state House Majority Leader Rick Berg; state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem; and Public Service Commissioner Kevin Cramer.

Nicholas, who one knowledgeable Republican consultant called “the farmer’s farmer,” has been courted repeatedly for higher office but never made the leap. A native of Cando, he has served in the state House since 1975 and is now chairman of the Agriculture Committee.

Dalrymple was just elected to a second term as lieutenant governor after serving in the Legislature. He has run twice before for the Senate.

In 1988, he lost a bid for the state party endorsement to challenge Sen. Quentin Burdick (D). Four years later, Dalrymple was the Republican nominee in the December 1992 special election to replace Burdick, who had died two months before. He lost to Conrad 63 percent to 34 percent.

Both Dalrymple and Nicholas have significant personal wealth.

Despite Republican assertions of a deep bench, a look back at 2004 shows that a number of those mentioned as possible candidates have been reluctant to run.

After Schafer turned down the pleas of national Republicans to run, no serious GOPer stepped into the void.

One potential X-factor in the race is that 2006 marks the first time in a nonpresidential cycle that a significant number of statewide offices will be up for election in North Dakota. In 2002, only the House seat and a seat on the Public Service Commission were on the ballot.

Due to a change in North Dakota electoral procedure, four of the state’s 12 statewide officeholders were elected to two-year terms in 2004 instead of the customary four-year terms. The switch was aimed at eliminating North Dakota as a “long ballot” state — meaning that all its statewide offices previously only came up in presidential election years.