With Sen. Conrad to retire, Republicans eye pick-up in North Dakota

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) announced Tuesday morning he will not run again, saying he's forgoing a reelection bid because he didn't want to be "distracted" by a campaign.

"There are serious challenges facing our state and nation, like a $14 trillion debt and America's dependence on foreign oil," he wrote in an e-mail to supporters. "It is more important I spend my time and energy trying to solve these problems than to be distracted by a campaign for reelection."

He is the first Democrat to announce his retirement this cycle. Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas) announced her retirement last week.

Conrad, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, has served five terms in the Senate. The Washington Post first reported the news.

Conrad's retirement is bad news for Democrats, who have to defend 23 Senate seats in 2012 when Republicans have only 10 seats up. Republicans only need a net gain of four seats to take control of the upper chamber.

A spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee said in an e-mail Monday that if "national Democrats seriously believe Senator Hutchison’s retirement in Texas represented a Senate landscape game-changer for 2012, than we can hardly wait for their reaction to this news."

A Democratic strategist said Conrad's retirement doesn't mean the party won't contest the seat. The strategist listed former Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp (D) and her brother, broadcaster Joel Heitkamp, as possible candidates.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) expressed confidence the party would keep the seat.

“The people of North Dakota had a stalwart fighter in Kent Conrad and the entire caucus will miss him. There are a number of potential Democratic candidates who could make this race competitive while we expect to see a contentious primary battle on the Republican side.  North Dakotans have a long history of electing moderate Democrats to the Senate, and we believe they will have an opportunity to keep up that tradition next November," she said in a statement.

Retirements in North Dakota have already created opportunities for Republicans. The state's other Democratic senator, Byron Dorgan, retired ahead of the 2010 midterms, allowing Republican John Hoeven to claim the seat without much difficulty.

During the same cycle, Demcrats also lost the state's at-large House seat when Pomeroy was defeated by Republican Rick Berg.

Pomeroy, Dorgan and Conrad are close friends and Conrad will go through the 112th Congress as the only Democrat from his state.

In his retirement announcement, Conrad thanked his family and his "best friends," Dorgan and Pomeroy. "It was my good fortune to serve in Congress with Byron and Earl for 18 years," he wrote. "It is an experience I will never forget."

Anticipating a tough challenge in 2012, Democratic groups had already started defending Conrad's record. Commonsense Ten, an independent Democratic group, recently launched radio ads in the state touting the five-term senator.

-- This post was last updated at 10:34 a.m.