Delegation Prospers by Bringing Home the Bacon

Posted October 15, 2007 at 6:22pm

Politically secure and with an average age of just under 60, the three Members of North Dakota’s all-Democratic Congressional delegation don’t look to be retiring any time soon — especially now that their party has the majority in both chambers. [IMGCAP(1)]

However, Republicans remain optimistic about their chances of creating some electoral waves in the coming cycles — if not this cycle — considering that the state tilts heavily toward the GOP in presidential contests and state legislative and executive races.

“We got a pretty deep bench in this state on the Republican side,” said North Dakota Republican Party Chairman Gary Emineth.

Neither of North Dakota’s Senate seats is up next year, making Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D) the only game in town on the federal level besides the presidential race. Gov. John Hoeven (R), whom Republicans tried unsuccessfully to recruit last year to challenge Sen. Kent Conrad (D), has indicated he is running for a third term, meaning he is unavailable to run for the House.

Republicans who follow North Dakota politics said most potential top-tier GOP candidates had been waiting to see what Hoeven was going to do. With the governor’s office now off the table, it’s possible one of them could turn their attention to the House race.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) is not up until 2010, and there is some speculation that Hoeven, who is only 50, might challenge the state’s junior Senator then.

Currently, the only Republican known to be interested in challenging the well-liked Pomeroy is Duane Sand, a retired Navy officer, businessman, 2004 House nominee and 2000 Senate nominee.

But for either this or future House and Senate races, Republicans are looking to Hoeven, state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Public Service Commissioners Kevin Cramer and Tony Clark.

Republicans also could look to multiple statewide office holders, including Lt. Gov. Jack Dalrymple, state Treasurer Kelly Schmidt, state Auditor Bob Peterson, state Insurance Commissioner Adam Hamm, Secretary of State Al Jaeger and state Tax Commissioner Cory Fong.

Republicans control both chambers of the state Legislature, and GOP operatives say there are several quality legislators who could be tapped by the party from those ranks to run for House or Senate.

Democrats, noting the political strength of the Congressional delegation, don’t appear to be concerned that their monopoly on the state’s federal office could be disrupted. In the previous cycle, Pomeroy defeated young farmer and first-time candidate Matt Mechtel (R) 66 percent to 34 percent and his last competitive race was in 2002; Conrad beat Dwight Grotberg (R) 69 percent to 30 percent.

Dorgan ran for re-election in 2004 and beat Mike Liffrig (R) 68 percent to 32 percent, even as President Bush was winning re-election with 63 percent of the vote.

“All three Members of our Congressional delegation work very hard on behalf of all North Dakotans,” said Jamie Selzler, executive director of the state Democratic Party. “North Dakotans will stay loyal because of all of their hard work.”

Democrats stress that Conrad, Dorgan and Pomeroy are expected to retain their offices for the next several years. But in the event that a vacancy were to occur sooner rather than later, they point to a handful of politicians they feel are primed for federal office.

Among them are state Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson, former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp and her brother Joel Heitkamp, a state Senator and radio talk-show host with statewide reach, state Rep. Jasper Schneider and 2006 secretary of state candidate Kristen Hedger, who is just 27 years old.

Democrats also could look to state Superintendent of Public Instruction Wayne Sanstead.

North Dakota has a strong Republican bent that should be accentuated this cycle because of the presidential race. But Democrats following politics in the state say the numbers are a bit deceptive.

Republicans have only a three-seat lead in the state Senate and Democrats believe they have a good opportunity to take over the chamber in next year’s elections.

Republicans argue that they remain the stronger party in the state overall, and based on the fact that they control the Legislature and a majority of the statewide constitutional offices, it is a hard claim to dispute.

GOP officials say Conrad, Dorgan and Pomeroy continue to win re-election because they appeal to the populist streak that underlies politics in the Sioux State, cut a moderate image and continually funnel a large chunk of federal funds to the state for various projects.

By one estimate, North Dakota receives as much as $2.60 for every $1 in taxes the state’s taxpayers send to Washington, D.C.

“North Dakotans like Republican administrations,” one GOP operative said. “But they like all of the Washington money coming back into the state.”