Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad of North Dakota, a leading deficit hawk who would have faced a tough re-election fight, announced today he won’t seek another term in 2012.
The decision will give Republicans a major pickup opportunity in a state where last year they defeated longtime Democratic Representative Earl Pomeroy. Veteran Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan also retired rather than face a Republican challenge.
Conrad, 62, is the first Democrat in the Senate to announce his retirement ahead of the 2012 elections; last week Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison said she wouldn’t seek re-election. Democrats, who control the Senate with 53 votes to 47 for Republicans, will be defending 23 of the 33 seats up for a vote in 2012.
“After months of consideration, I have decided not to seek re-election,” said Conrad in a statement. “There are serious challenges facing our state and nation” and “it is more important I spend my time and energy trying to solve these problems than to be distracted by a campaign for re-election.”
In a sign of how competitive a race would have been, the Republican-leaning American Future Fund already has run radio ads opposing Conrad’s re-election. Last week, North Dakota Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk, a Republican, announced he was considering challenging Conrad.
Conrad debated, and ultimately decided against, trying to shore up his position at home by giving up the Budget Committee chairmanship and taking over the Senate Agriculture Committee. That would have made him the party’s point man on a farm subsidy bill of which his state is a major beneficiary.
His retirement is a blow to efforts to rein in the federal budget, said Bob Bixby, head of the Washington-based Concord Coalition, which promotes balanced budgets. “He’s been a go-to guy for deficit hawks,” Bixby said. “Everybody talks about, but Conrad has really made it a cause and heightened the profile of the issue and we’ll be losing that.”
Conrad, sometimes teased by colleagues for the many budget charts he often brings to congressional hearings, was instrumental in the creation of the administration’s deficit commission. He refused to vote for a debt-ceiling hike early last year unless the panel was created.
He supported a $3.8 trillion budget-cutting plan proposed by the commission’s co-chairmen though it was rejected by the panel. This year, he joined Republicans in calling for tough cuts as part of any deal to allow a long-term increase in the debt ceiling. He said, though, he won’t oppose short-term increases in borrowing limits.
“He has shown an unmatched dedication to putting our country on a sound fiscal path and a commitment to meeting our nation’s energy challenges,” President Barack Obama said in a statement.
Conrad was reared by his grandparents after his parents were killed in a car crash when he was 5 years old. A former state tax commissioner, Conrad was first elected to the Senate in 1986 on a promise to step down after one term if the deficit wasn’t brought under control.
He announced his retirement in 1992, though later that year North Dakota’s other senator, Democrat Quentin Burdick, died and Conrad won his seat in a special election.
Republicans hailed Conrad’s decision to retire and said they would likely take over the seat.
“Like millions of voters across the country, North Dakotans sent a strong message in November that they are tired of the massive spending and growing debt that we have been seeing from Washington,” said Brian Walsh, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “That is why the Democrats’ big-government agenda will be a major impediment to any Democrat challenger who may now step forward in this race.”
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Patty Murray said, “There are a number of potential Democratic candidates who could make this race competitive, while we expect to see a contentious primary battle on the Republican side.”
“North Dakotans have a long history of elected moderate Democrats to the Senate, and we believe they will have an opportunity to keep up that tradition next November,” she said.