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Patrick Springer and Kristen M. Daum, Forum staff writers, Published January 07 2010

Pomeroy won’t seek Senate seat

North Dakota’s political spotlight turned to the U.S. House race Wednesday when Democratic incumbent Earl Pomeroy announced his intention to seek re-election and Republican Kevin Cramer said he is seriously considering a run.

Wednesday’s developments came in the aftermath of Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan’s stunning announcement Tuesday that he would not seek a fourth Senate term – a move that has energized Republicans and cast a new light on the House race.

In making his announcement, Pomeroy sought to end speculation that he would try to switch to the Senate – a bid he said would foolishly toss aside the seniority and committee assignments he has earned after 17 years in the House.

“For me the question is: How can I best represent North Dakota? And there’s no question in my mind I can best advance our interests as a senior member of the House with positions of senior responsibility under those powerful committees,” said Pomeroy, who sits on the House Ways and Means Committee, among other assignments.

Pomeroy said if he ran for Dorgan’s seat, it would mean two of North Dakota’s three seats in Congress would be filled by freshman members, which would diminish the state delegation’s influence in Washington.

“Part of our winning strategy for North Dakota has been to serve and accrue seniority and positions of influence in the House and Senate,” said Pomeroy, who is now running for his 10th House term. “If one runs for Senate from the House, you start at the back of the line just like everyone else.”

Cramer, who serves on the state Public Service Commission, said last fall he would likely not make a third attempt to unseat Pomeroy.

But Wednesday, Cramer said two developments were making him reconsider: Pomeroy’s vote in favor of a House health reform bill he said is unpopular with North Dakota voters, and Dorgan’s decision to retire from the Senate.

Many Republicans now expect Gov. John Hoeven, who is “seriously considering” a run for the Senate, to enter the race. They believe his popularity with voters could create momentum for other GOP candidates on the ticket.

“The dynamics changed a lot,” Cramer said, adding that he’s been getting encouragement to run from members of the House Republican Congressional Committee.

“I reopened it in my mind and my heart,” Cramer said. “I’m taking another look at it from both an intellectual and spiritual standpoint.”

Several other Republicans have been named as possible House challengers, including Jim Poolman of Bismarck, a former state insurance commissioner, and Rick Berg of Fargo, who has been a Republican leader in the state House.

Poolman said he is considering a possible House run, but has family and business considerations to weigh as well. Interest is heightened because of dissatisfaction with the direction of the country, he said.

“These issues are so serious, with generational consequences,” Poolman said.

Berg, who is not running for re-election to his state House seat, could not be reached for comment.

Rick Clayburgh, a former state tax commissioner who once ran unsuccessfully against Pomeroy, also is mentioned as a possible GOP House candidate. Clayburgh, who now heads a state banking association, said he has not considered a run for Congress.

With Pomeroy out of the run ning, some North Dakota Democrats are encouraging Heidi Heitkamp, a former North Dakota attorney general, to enter the Senate race.

Heitkamp, who lost against Hoeven when both sought the governor’s office in 2000, is the subject of a draft movement on Facebook, the Internet social network.

Efforts to reach her Wednesday by phone were unsuccessful. Heitkamp’s brother Joel, a former state legislator and now a Fargo radio talk-show host, said he had not yet talked to his sister but hopes she gives serious consideration to a run.

“Heidi has always had a deep sense of service,” he said. “I have always hoped that she isn’t done with politics.”

Before Pomeroy announced he would not run for a Senate seat, Joel Heitkamp said he would have to be regarded as the Democrats’ top prospect, given his grasp of federal issues and his connection with voters statewide.

“Earl knows what it’s like to run in every county in this state,” he said.

Birch Burdick, the Cass County state’s attorney, is another Democrat mentioned as a possible Senate candidate. Burdick said he is thinking about a possible run, but enjoys his job as a prosecutor.

Mark Schneider, chairman of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party, said the immediate focus is to pause briefly and honor Dorgan for his decades of public service.

“We’re going to cast a wide net,” for a Senate candidate, he said. Those who are interested in a Senate run will be asked to make their intentions public, and the candidate will be selected at the party’s state convention in March, Schneider said.

Hoeven would make a “formidable, but not unbeatable” Senate candidate for the Republicans, who should not view the race as decided, he said.

“They’ve already told the people how it’s going to turn out,” Schneider said. “That is just arrogance.”

For his part, Dorgan said Wednesday that Democrats would field a strong slate of candidates.

“My sense is I belong to a great political party,” the senator said. “I think our party is going to show some spunk and fight and some good candidates to carry on the fight.”

If Hoeven were elected to the Senate, Lt. Gov. Jack Dalrymple would take over as governor, said Secretary of State Al Jaeger. Dalrymple could not be reached for comment about his interest in a possible run for governor in 2012.

Republican Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who will seek a fourth term this year, would not comment about whether he would run for governor in 2012.

“Who knows what might happen in 2012?” he said. “We’re just trying to digest what happened yesterday.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

and Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541