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Published January 22 2010

North Dakota Democrats in no hurry to choose candidate for US Senate

Although the Democratic-NPL Party convention is little more than two months away, North Dakota Democrats said there isn’t any pressure for a candidate to come forth for the U.S. Senate race.

The state convention in Fargo is slated for the last weekend in March – one week after Republicans meet in Grand Forks to endorse their nominee between declared candidates Gov. John Hoeven and Paul Sorum, a Fargo architect and business consultant.

“I don’t think we feel any pressure or any rush to get a candidate on our side,” said Joe Aronson, executive director of the Democratic-NPL Party. “We’ll wait and see who gets out there. Obviously, it’s a big decision on whether to run for the United States Senate, so we’re fine with folks taking their time to make that decision.”

It’s no secret that one name is offered first and overwhelmingly among state Democrats as the best potential candidate to challenge the energized Republicans: Heidi Heitkamp.

Heitkamp, former North Dakota attorney general, previously challenged and lost to Hoeven in the 2000 governor’s race.

She hasn’t said anything publically about a possible Senate candidacy since releasing a statement two weeks ago, after incumbent Sen. Byron Dorgan shocked Democrats with the news of his retirement at the end of this year.

At that time, Heitkamp acknowledged she is considering her options but said, “It is extremely premature for anyone to say that my decision is close to being made.”

Heitkamp has not returned phone calls or responded to e-mails sent by The Forum seeking comment.

Heitkamp’s brother, Joel, said Wednesday: “It’s going to take some time” before his older sister announces her intentions.

“She and I have done some talking about it, and I can honestly tell you that no decision has been made,” said Heitkamp, who is a Fargo radio talk-show host and former state legislator.

Democratic-NPL Party Chairman Mark Schneider said Heidi Heitkamp is weighing her options and taking advice from those closest to her as she decides how to move forward.

“She will make a decision in due course,” Schneider said. “Heidi is well aware of the timing involved, and in reality, there is no immediate concern to announce this week or next week. There’s time there.”

“And, we know that Heidi will make her choices in a time frame that will allow us to have other qualified candidates step forward if she decides not to run,” Schneider added, “but I’m confident that she will (run).”

The general consensus among North Dakota Democrats seems to be: Wait for Heitkamp’s decision before any candidate declares. Still, that doesn’t prevent speculation about who might be the Democrats’ next choice if Heitkamp doesn’t run.

Top names mentioned include Heitkamp’s brother, Joel, Dorgan’s state director, Pam Gulleson, and former secretary of state candidate Kristin Hedger of Bismarck.

All three confirmed they are considering a Senate bid but want to know what Heidi Heitkamp decides first.

“I think it’s her race to run,” Joel Heitkamp said. “Everybody after Heidi is a little bit further long shot, but I think she truly knows the story of how to win.”

“I think she would give John Hoeven a race like he’s never had before, and she’d make sure he knows that this isn’t just a coronation,” he added.

Beyond the likely Democratic contenders, other names offered include:

  • Scott Stofferahn, Sen. Kent Conrad’s eastern state director.

  • Ryan Taylor, a rancher and state senator from Towner.

  • Mac Schneider, a Grand Forks attorney and state senator (who also is Mark Schneider’s son).

  • Jasper Schneider, the state director for USDA Rural Development and a former state legislator (who is Mark Schneider’s nephew).

    Those four said they were flattered to be mentioned but aren’t looking toward a Senate bid.

    “I wouldn’t say that I am considering it at this point,” Stofferahn said. “Never say never, but at this point, I’ve got other things that are more important for me and for the (Conrad) office here.”

    Meanwhile, state and national Republicans have showered Hoeven with support for his campaign – with the Senate Republican leader promising earlier this week in Fargo to appoint Hoeven to influential committees if he’s elected.

    State Democrats have a message for GOP party leaders: Not so fast.

    “Arrogance seems to be reigning supreme in the Republican Party and that kind of arrogance will be their downfall,” Mark Schneider said. “The independent-minded voter in North Dakota is not going to want to be told: No. 1, how to vote, and No. 2, that it doesn’t matter anyway because the election is already in the bag.”

    State GOP Party Chairman Gary Emineth said what Democrats mistake as arrogance is really a “giddiness” and “euphoria” at the chance of taking back up to two of the three delegation seats, which have been solidly Democratic for more than 20 years.

    “It’s been a challenge for so long,” Emineth said. “We’ve had good candidates, but we’ve never been in a position like we are today to actually win one and possibly two seats. We, as Republicans, are giddy at the prospect.”


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