By Aaron Blake and Alexander Bolton - 01/05/10 11:01 PM EST
In a move that will rock the 2010 Senate landscape, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) unexpectedly announced Tuesday evening that he will not seek reelection.
Dorgan, who is in his third term and has been in Congress for three decades, said in a statement that he is moving on to pursue other interests.
Dorgan’s exit comes as Republicans have toyed with pursuing a run against him. Gov. John Hoeven (R) has polled wide leads in some surveys of the race, but had yet to publicly indicate his interest. And, barring Hoeven’s candidacy, Dorgan was a good bet for reelection.
The senator’s exit will reignite speculation that the extremely popular three-term governor will seek the seat. Regardless, in a year that looked to be tough for Democrats in conservative areas, an open seat in North Dakota is a body blow.
Dorgan is the first elected Democratic senator to announce that he will not seek another term this year. He joins four Democratic House incumbents in swing or conservative areas who retired recently, giving Democrats their first outright retirees of the cycle.
The seat immediately becomes a toss-up, with Republicans being handed what is perhaps their best pickup opportunity on the map. If Hoeven runs, Democrats will have a hard time contesting the seat.
Rep. Earl Pomeroy, the state’s at-large representative, would be considered a possible Democratic candidate.
North Dakota gave Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) a 53-45 win in the 2008 presidential election, but it gave President George W. Bush 63 percent of the vote in 2004 and is among the most conservative states in the country.
At the same time, all three of its members of Congress are Democrats, and Dorgan, Sen. Kent Conrad and Pomeroy have routinely won reelection by wide margins.
After losing a 1974 campaign for Congress, Dorgan was first elected to the House in 1980 and won his Senate seat in 1992. The state’s junior senator, he has been a champion of reining in the free market.
Dorgan’s retirement comes as a blow to labor unions and consumers’ rights groups, which viewed him as one of their most outspoken and eloquent allies in the upper chamber.
Dorgan’s departure also leaves a gap in the Senate Democratic leadership. Dorgan has served as chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee for more than a decade.
Dorgan was also part of talks in the early part of the last decade to create new Democratic think tanks and policy organizations to compete with conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation. Those discussions eventually led to the creation of the Center for American Progress.
Dorgan is well-known among his colleagues and C-SPAN viewers for his ability to deliver crisp and incisive arguments, seemingly off the cuff, on the Senate floor.
Dorgan has taken lonely stands against his party and conventional wisdom, such as in 1999 when he warned colleagues they would regret the passage of a bank deregulation bill that many experts now say was partly responsible for the financial collapse of last year.
“I think we will look back in 10 years’ time and say we should not have done this, but we did because we forgot the lessons of the past,” said Dorgan, in a moment of prescience. “That which is true in the 1930s is true in 2010.”
Dorgan took a stand against his party’s leadership last month when he pushed an amendment to the healthcare reform bill that would have allowed for the importation of cheap prescription drugs, an issue Dorgan championed in recent years. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) convinced fellow Democrats to oppose the amendment to preserve a pact President Barack Obama forged with the pharmaceutical drug industry.
Dorgan was appointed by former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) to head the Democratic Policy Committee, which has often served as a steppingstone to the highest ranks of Democratic leadership.
Dorgan’s leadership prospects faded, however, when Daschle, one of his strongest allies, lost a bid for reelection in 2004.
-- This article was updated at 8:26 p.m.