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.
President Obama praised Conrad's service, saying in a statement: "He has shown an unmatched dedication to putting our country on a sound fiscal path and a commitment to meeting our nation’s energy challenges. He has also been a good friend to me, and while I am saddened to see him leave the Senate, I look forward to working with him during the next two years on the important issues facing our country."
Conrad's retirement is bad news for Democrats, who will 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 (NRSC) 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, then 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 state Attorney General Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampWashington's oldest contact sport: Lobbyists scrum to dilute or kill Democrats' tax bill Progressives prepare to launch counterattack in tax fight Business groups aim to divide Democrats on .5T spending bill MORE (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 their 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 ND 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 ND to fill," Pomeroy said.
National Republicans, meanwhile, point to Pomeroy's new gig as evidence he isn't likely to be interested a 2012 campaign.
Brian Walsh, a spokesman for NRSC, said Conrad's departure "dramatically reshapes this race in the Republicans’ favor."
“We believe this race represents one of the strongest pick-up opportunities for Senate Republicans this cycle and will invest whatever resources are necessary to win next year," Walsh said in a statement.
But North Dakota Republican Party Chairman Stan Stein said Conrad's retirement doesn't mean a GOP pick-up is a foregone conclusion.
"We're going to go after it like Kent Conrad was running," he said. "We aren't going to take this for granted. We're going after it with everything we have."
Stein said the GOP has a dearth of potential candidates. He cited newly elected Gov. Jack Dalrymple, Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley, state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Public Service Commissioner Tony Clark as possible candidates.
Meanwhile, Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk has already formed an exploratory committee.
"We got a full stable here," Stein said.
The chairman said he wasn't worried about a bruising primary.
"We might have a contested primary but we had a primary for [newly elected GOP Rep.] Rick Berg's seat," he said. "At the end of the day, it's healthy."
On the Democratic side, state Senate Minority Leader Ryan Taylor is considered a contender for statewide office, and state Rep. Corey Mock, who ran for secretary of state last year, is also being mentioned as a possible candidate.
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayUnder pressure, Democrats cut back spending Overnight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Colin Powell's death highlights risks for immunocompromised Senate Democrats ditch Hyde amendment for first time in decades MORE (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 HoevenJohn Henry HoevenHouse passes legislation to strengthen federal cybersecurity workforce The 19 GOP senators who voted for the T infrastructure bill The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands MORE 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 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.
-- Shane D'Aprile contributed.
—This post was first posted 10:05 a.m. and updated at 1:26 p.m.