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Clarence F. “Rick” Olson, Fargo, Published June 22 2013

Commentary: Heitkamp for ND governor?

Now that the general election is over, and the North Dakota legislative session is behind us, the state is now in the ebb of the political season. This time of year brings about, among other things, speculation about individuals who might be running for office during the 2014 election cycle.

Some of the speculation appears to be centering upon newly elected Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. Heitkamp won a narrow victory in last year’s U.S. Senate race against Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D. Berg served for one two-year term as North Dakota’s lone member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and was succeeded in the House by recently elected Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.

Always her goal?

Now that Heitkamp is serving as North Dakota’s junior senator on Capitol Hill, speculation has begun that names Heitkamp as a potential candidate for governor of North Dakota in 2016, when Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s first full term as governor is set to expire.

A few political observers around the state feel that Heitkamp’s goal has always been to become governor of North Dakota, Rob Port wrote in a recent blog entry (SayAnythingBlog.com).

“I’ve long been told by various political observers in the state on both the left and the right that being governor has always been Heitkamp’s real goal,” Port wrote. “She ran for the Senate more out of expediency, and her party’s utter lack of convincing candidates, than actual desire to serve in Washington, D.C.”

“I’m told that Heitkamp’s ambitions lay more with being governor and the hub of an emerging Democrat political machine in the state,” he added.

Nothing to lose

If one follows that line of reasoning, then Heitkamp really has nothing to lose if she were to run for governor in 2016. She could come home and run for governor, and if she wins, then she could then appoint an interim senator to fill the seat until a special election can be held. Once Heitkamp was sworn in as governor on Dec. 15, 2016 (the state constitution prescribes that a governor’s term of office shall begin on Dec. 15 of the year that he or she is elected), she could then send her choice as interim senator to fill her seat in the Senate to Washington to be sworn in.

Under this scenario, if indeed it plays itself out, then the timing of when a special election would need to take place would depend upon the date when Heitkamp officially tenders her resignation from the U.S. Senate to Joe Biden, the vice president of the United States. In his role as the vice president, Biden also serves as the constitutionally prescribed president of the U.S. Senate.

North Dakota law requires that there be a special election called by the governor in the event of a vacancy in the U.S. Senate within 90 days of the vacancy occurring. In the meantime, the governor has the authority to appoint an interim senator who serves until the unexpired term is filled at the special election. If the vacancy in the U.S. Senate occurs within 90 days of a general election, then the unexpired term is filled at the general election.

A little history

The last time there was a vacancy in the U.S. Senate from North Dakota, which required the unexpired term to be filled, was when legendary Sen. Quentin Burdick, D-N.D., died. Although then-Gov. George Sinner appointed Burdick’s widow, Jocelyn Burdick, to fill her husband’s seat, the appointment was only temporary. Burdick quickly declined to run for the remainder of her husband’s term in the Senate in the special election, and instead asked now-retired Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., to run for the seat.

Sen. Burdick died on Sept. 8, 1992, and Jocelyn Burdick was appointed to her late husband’s seat in the U.S. Senate by then-Gov. Sinner on Sept. 16, 1992. The special election to fill Burdick’s seat in the Senate (which Jocelyn Burdick chose not to run for) was held on Dec. 4, 1992, with Conrad winning the seat. Sinner wanted to hold the special election in conjunction with the November 1992 general election, but a unanimous decision by the North Dakota Supreme Court declared that a special election had to be held to fill the unexpired term.

Heitkamp has nothing to lose. If she were to run for governor and win, she would get to choose her own successor, once she’s sworn in as governor, for her vacant seat in the U.S. Senate on an interim basis. If she loses the election for governor, she then would get to keep her seat in the Senate, and then run for re-election to a second six-year term in 2018.


Olson is a regular contributor to The Forum’s commentary and opinion pages. Email rickolson@cableone.net