Democrats exiting the sinking ship? Part 14 (North Dakota) 

The news from North Dakota after the surprise retirement announcement of Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan is that North Dakota Democrats are having trouble finding a candidate to run for his seat. Congressman-at-Large Earl Pomeroy has announced he won’t run for the Senate, saying that that would mean that one of the state’s senators and its only congressman would have no seniority. That’s true, although it’s also likely that Pomeroy was deterred by the possibility that Republican Governor John Hoeven, who has something like 87% job approval, will run for the seat. The theory has been advanced by Gay Patriot blogger B. Daniel Blatt that Hoeven may have privately given Dorgan a heads-up that he was running; if so, Dorgan would surely have relayed that information to Pomeroy.

Dorgan and Pomeroy have been longtime political allies; in fact all three of North Dakota’s three Democratic members of Congress have had intertwined political careers—careers which help to explain how Democrats have maintained congressional majorities for most of the last 40 years. The story starts in 1969 when Byron Dorgan, at 27, was appointed state tax commissioner by Governor William Guy. In that job he concentrated on taxing out-of-state corporations, arguing that more of their income was derived from North Dakota than what they claimed. This struck a chord in a state with Republican national leanings but a populist heritage, and Dorgan was elected to a full term in 1972. In 1974 he ran for the state’s single House seat and in a strong Democratic year lost by only a 56%-44% margin to Republican incumbent Mark Andrews. The young man who drove him around the state was a 1974 graduate of the University of North Dakota, Earl Pomeroy. Also working for Dorgan in that 1974 campaign was a 1971 graduate of Stanford from a family with deep North Dakota roots named Kent Conrad, who after the election became Dorgan’s chief assistant in the tax commissioner office.

Dorgan was reelected tax commissioner in 1976 and, when Andrews ran for the Senate in 1980, Dorgan ran again for the House seat and won, 57%-43%. Conrad ran for tax commissioner and, even in a Republican year, was elected. Dorgan was easily reelected to the House every two years; Conrad was reelected tax commissioner in 1984 and in 1986 ran against Senator Mark Andrews. North Dakota is a small state and voters expect to meet and talk with their senators and congressmen; officeholders tend to be very nice and courteous people. But Andrews seemed to grow more aloof and perhaps pompous in his term in the Senate, and Conrad was able to beat him by a 50%-49% margin.

The next move of the three political compatriots came in 1992. Conrad decided not to run for reelection on the grounds he had failed to reduce the federal budget deficit as promised; Dorgan ran for his Senate seat and Pomeroy, who had been elected to the state House in 1980 and 1982 and as state insurance commissioner in 1984 and 1988, ran for the House seat. Then in September senior Senator Quentin Burdick died; Conrad ran in the special election for his seat and won handily and, for a moment in December 1992, technically held both of the state’s Senate seats.

From 1992 until now Conrad, Dorgan and Pomeroy have been reelected; Pomeroy has had some serious challenges but never got less than 52% of the votes. So two Senate seats and one House seat, which in open-seat contests might have gone Republican most of the time, have been held by Democrats. Multiply this example by a dozen or two, and you have one of the main reasons for Democrats’ congressional majorities. It all started with Dorgan’s shrewd use of the tax commissioner office starting more than 40 years ago. Now, with Dorgan’s retirement and Pomeroy’s decision not to run for the Senate and the possibility that he may have a serious challenge, the three North Dakota Democrats’ run may be coming to an end—but with Kent Conrad remaining in the Senate with his seat coming up in 2012.

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Michael Barone

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