By Sean J. Miller and Shane D’Aprile - 01/19/11 01:30 AM EST
Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) have dealt a blow to Democrats’ faint hopes of keeping the majority in the Senate after the 2012 election.
Conrad announced Tuesday he will not run for reelection, and Lieberman, an Independent who caucuses with Democrats, is expected to announce the same Wednesday afternoon.
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.
Lieberman, 68, scheduled a Wednesday afternoon announcement in his home state to reveal his intentions for next year and a Democratic source claiming knowledge of the senator's decision told The Hill the four-term senator will not seek reelection.
A handful of political insiders in Connecticut also said they do not anticipate Lieberman will seek reelection, with one Democratic source saying, “No one expects him to run again.”
But one veteran of several statewide campaigns in Connecticut said, “I certainly don't expect him to run [though] I won't really believe it until I see it,” pointing out Lieberman’s reputation for unpredictability.
Members of both political parties believe they would have had a shot at defeating Lieberman, who lost a Democratic Senate primary in 2006 before winning the general election as an Independent.
One Democrat, former state Secretary Susan Bysiewicz, already has announced for the seat.
Lieberman has always been something of a political enigma: He was the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee, but endorsed Republican John McCain in 2008 (and was also said to be on the shortlist for McCain’s vice president).
His stance on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has angered liberals, while his support for domestic programs like healthcare reform and the federal stimulus package have irked conservatives.
Lieberman would be the third senator this cycle to retire. Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas) announced her retirement last week. With Tuesday’s announcement, Conrad became the first Democrat to retire.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee said in a statement Wednesday evening: “With yet a second member of the Senate Democrat caucus preparing for retirement within a 24-hour period, all of us are left to wonder how many more Democrats may follow in their footsteps.”
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 state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp (D) and her brother, broadcaster Joel Heitkamp, as possible candidates.
In a statement to The Hill, Pomeroy, who just took a job with Washington-based lobbying and law firm Alston & Bird in its healthcare practice, did not rule out a run.
“I have begun a new career chapter. Besides, this is a day to reflect on how much Kent Conrad’s service has meant to [North Dakota] and the nation without speculating about what North Dakota will do to try and replace him. While no one in politics is indispensable, Kent Conrad’s shoes will be very hard for [the state] to fill,” Pomeroy said.
North Dakota Republican Party Chairman Stan Stein said the GOP has a bevy of potential candidates, including newly elected Gov. Jack Dalrymple, Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley, state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Public Service Commissioner Tony Clark.
Meanwhile, Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk (R) has already formed an exploratory committee.
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (Wash.) expressed confidence the party would keep the seat.
“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,” she said in a statement.
Tea Party activists could be another factor, with one Republican strategist predicting they will be a major player in the GOP Senate primary.
“I think there’s going to be a battle for control of the party,” said Gary Emineth, who spent three years as chairman of the state GOP.
One candidate who could excite Tea Party activists is the newly elected Republican Rep. Rick Berg.
“Rick Berg had a lot of support from Tea Party people in 2010,” said Emineth. “I think he would probably be our strongest candidate at this point.”
A spokeswoman for Berg said at press time he was 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.
Conrad, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said 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.”
Conrad established a reputation as one of the sharpest policy minds in the Senate and played a central role in writing major legislation such as the 2008 farm bill .
As the third-ranking Democrat on the Agriculture Committee in 2008, Conrad had an outsize influence on the farm legislation. He also participated in months of healthcare reform talks with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).
For the last decade, the five-term senator has been the most outspoken budget deficit hawk in the Senate Democratic Conference, pursuing a pledge that first got him elected in 1986.
During his first Senate campaign, Conrad promised to resign after one term if the federal deficit was not trimmed during his time in office.
Conrad kept to his pledge and announced his retirement in the spring of 1992, giving way to his former colleague, Dorgan.
But in the fall of that year, former Sen. Quentin Burdick (R-N.D.) announced his retirement and Conrad ran, successfully, for the state’s other seat.
Throughout his career, Conrad has often taken blow-up charts to the Senate floor to illustrate the nation’s projected deficits.
His giant blue charts, offbeat humor and love of the Baltimore Orioles are his trademarks and have endeared him to many colleagues, staff and reporters, whom he sometimes takes to games at Camden Yards.
Alexander Bolton and Jordan Fabian contributed to this article.