Tea Party activists vow for 'battle for control' of GOP in N.D.

Tea Party activists last year successfully hijacked the Senate nomination process in Utah, which employs a similar system to North Dakota. Other small states such as Delaware, Nevada and Kentucky also nominated Tea Party-backed Senate candidates.

Still, the Tea Party's influence wasn't felt in North Dakota's Senate race, where then-Gov. John Hoeven cruised to the GOP nomination and later claimed retiring Sen. Byron Dorgan's (D-N.D.) seat. Hoeven's popularity meant he wasn't challenged in the primary by a Tea Party-supported candidate, said Emineth, who left the party in July.

"I think they'll play a role this time in the endorsement of a candidate. You're going to see philosophy play a bigger role."

Emineth explained that during his tenure as chairman, "I did a lot to engage Tea Party people to get invested in the process." Many Tea Party activists have started to get involved at the district-level and could end up elected delegates to the state convention.

Current state Republican Party chairman Stan Stein praised the Tea Party's role in the last election. "I consider myself on board with the message of keeping our elected official accountable and the [need to cut] the budget deficit," he said.

Asked if he thought the Tea Party will play kingmaker during the nomination process, Stein replied, "Time will tell."

State Democrats, meanwhile, are hopeful an "extreme" candidate emerges to face their nominee.

"Certainly with Sen. Hoeven, the Tea Party didn't get what they wanted," said Joe Aronson, executive director of the North Dakota Democratic Party.

North Dakotans look for a Senate candidate who can work across party lines on legislation like, say, the farm bill, Aronson said. "A lot of rhetoric from the Tea Party in North Dakota has been pretty extreme," which could turn voters off.

One candidate who could excite Tea Party activists is newly-elected Rep. Rick Berg (R-N.D.).

"Rick Berg had a lot of support from Tea Party people in 2012," said Emineth, who has also been mentioned as a possible Senate contender. "I think he would probably be our strongest candidate at this point."

A spokeswoman for Berg said that he's on a plane returning to Washington and has not yet had an opportunity to speak with Conrad. Once he does, his office will issue a statement regarding Conrad's retirement and the open Senate seat.

Another Republican weighing a 2012 bid is Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk. He launched an exploratory committee last week, but told The Hill Tuesday that Conrad's retirement doesn't light a fire under him ahead of 2012.

"It doesn't change anything we're doing," said Kalk. "We're still moving forward and deciding whether or not to jump into the race."

Kalk said he's confident he would prove a formidable candidate in a GOP contest decided by the state's convention process, adding that while the candidate who emerges from the convention with an endorsement typically stands alone on the primary ballot, it's not always the case.

"Rick Berg won the endorsement in 2008, but two other people still ran in the primary," said Kalk. "So, who knows what could happen."

--Updated at 6:04 p.m.

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