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Published January 17 2010

Experts shift predictions in Hoeven’s favor

National political analysts are revising their predictions for North Dakota’s U.S. Senate race in favor of Republican Gov. John Hoeven after last week’s announcement that he’ll run for the seat.

But other political observers caution that it might still be too early to predict the outcome of the November election.

Hoeven and fellow Republican Paul Sorum, a Fargo architect and business consultant, are the only declared candidates for the race.

Democrats have not yet put forth a declared candidate since incumbent Sen. Byron Dorgan announced two weeks ago he would retire from the Senate at the end of this year.

The Cook Political Report, a Washington-based nonpartisan political analysis publication, released its weekly prediction Thursday for the nation’s open Senate seats – and now lists North Dakota’s as the only Democrat-filled seat likely to switch sides in November.

The race is now classified as in “solid Republican” favor, a dramatic switch from “solid Democrat” a month ago.

However, not all political analysts agree so strongly.

The Rothenberg Political Report, another nonpartisan analysis group, offered a more conservative classification for the North Dakota race, predicting it as one of three states “leaning” for a takeover by the opposing party.

Former North Dakota Republican Gov. Ed Schafer acknowledged the current dynamic can change dramatically in the 10 months until November, but said he expects Hoeven will be victorious.

“Under the conditions that you see today lining up, I just don’t see any way that John Hoeven would not be elected as the next U.S. senator,” Schafer said.

Meanwhile, North Dakota Democrats are waiting for word from former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp on whether she’ll seek another match-up against Hoeven.

Heitkamp previously ran against Hoeven in the 2000 governor’s race and lost with 45 percent of the vote to Hoeven’s 55 percent.

Heitkamp said earlier this month she wants time to consider her options before making a decision and did not return a phone call or e-mail from The Forum last week.

“Heidi Heitkamp’s name is on everyone’s lips,” said North Dakota Democratic-NPL Chairman Mark Schneider. “She wants to take her time and well she should. … It’s the poker equivalent of being ‘all in,’ and that’s a very difficult decision to make.”

Other Democrats are throwing their support behind Heitkamp, but said they might be willing to run if she declines.

Dorgan’s State Director Pam Gulleson, of Rutland, said Friday she’s now considering a run for the Senate if Heitkamp doesn’t go for it.

Gulleson served 16 years in the state House, including time as the assistant minority leader.

“Obviously, I’m putting my support behind Heidi Heitkamp, and I’ll be doing everything I can do to encourage her to run,” Gulleson said. “But I’m also looking at the potential of a race in the future, depending on what happens. … I feel like I have more to contribute in the future.”

Bismarck Democrat Kristin Hedger also has said she’s interested in a Senate bid depending on Heitkamp’s choice.

“Should she decide to run for U.S. Senate, she would have my support,” Hedger wrote in part on her Web site Thursday. “Were Heidi to decline to run for Senate, I would have to give it serious consideration.”

Republicans, including Schafer, have said they don’t know of a viable candidate besides Heitkamp who could compete with Hoeven in November.

But Schneider said, without Heitkamp’s decision, it’s too soon to tell.

“There isn’t any hurry here; this is still very fresh news,” Schneider said. “We have any number of good quality people that will come forth. But right now, virtually everybody is waiting for Heidi.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541