- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Republicans may have two prime pickup opportunities in the 2012 struggle for control of the Senate after North Dakota Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad announced Tuesday he will not seek re-election and Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat-turned-independent who still caucuses with his old party, scheduled a Wednesday press conference in Stamford, Conn., on his future.

Multiple press reports, citing those close to Mr. Lieberman, are saying he will also step down.

Mr. Lieberman, Al Gore running mate in the 2000 presidential election, “will announce tomorrow that he won’t run for re-election in 2012,” said an aide, who asked not to be identified by name, to the Reuters news agency.

GOP officials said the decision by Mr. Conrad, a five-term incumbent who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, immediately transforms the North Dakota race from a tight battle into a high-percentage prospect for a GOP pickup in a increasingly red state.

Senate Republicans fully expected North Dakota to be a major battleground in 2012, but Senator Conrad’s retirement dramatically reshapes this race in the Republicans’ favor,” said Brian Walsh, National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman.

Mr. Walsh said that, with the prospect of Mr. Lieberman stepping down as well, “all of us are left to wonder how many more Democrats may follow in their footsteps.”

Sen Patty Murray, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, praised Mr. Conrad and said her party was not conceding defeat in the race for his successor.

“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,” Mrs. Murray said. “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.”

Also on Tuesday, Indiana GOP Sen. Richard G. Lugar announced he will seek a seventh term. The 78-year-old Mr. Lugar, a moderate who in the lame-duck session of the 111th Congress voted for the new nuclear arms treaty with Russia, is preparing for an expected primary challenge from tea party activists.

Mr. Lugar said earlier this week he has already begun a vigorous fundraising drive. He reportedly has already raised more than $320,000.

On paper, Connecticut Democrats have a better shot at capturing Mr. Lieberman’s seat, but the open contest means the party won’t have the advantage of incumbency next year. Twenty-three seats held by members of the Democratic caucus are on the ballot next year, compared with those of only 10 Republicans.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican, has already announced she will not seek re-election, but Republicans are favored to retain her seat.

Mr. Conrad told supporters in an e-mail that he wants to devote the remainder of his term to the “serious challenges” facing his state and the country, including addressing the $14 trillion national debt and U.S. dependency of foreign oil.

“It is more important I spend my time and energy trying to solve these problems than to be distracted by a campaign for re-election,” Mr. Conrad wrote.

Although Mr. Conrad won 69 percent of the vote in his 2006 race, state political analysts predicted he could be facing a very tough re-election battle.

North Dakota Republican Gov. John Hoeven easily won the Senate seat of Mr. Conrad’s fellow Democrat, Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, in November, after Mr. Dorgan opted not to run again.

Though the announcement was not expected, Capitol Hill insiders said the 62-year-old Mr. Conrad’s decision last month to pass on the chamber’s Agriculture Committee chairmanship was one indication that he was considering retirement.

No clear Democratic successor has emerged to run, but North Dakota Republicans hopefuls expected to enter the race include state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk.

In Connecticut, Mr. Lieberman was already facing a challenger from the left: former Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz, a Democrat, announced this week she will run for the seat.

Though Mrs. Hutchison’s departure gives Democrats’ a better chance of contesting the open seat in Texas, they have a relatively weak bench, and the man seen as their best hope, former Houston Mayor Bill White, has said he will not run.

Mr. White was soundly defeated by GOP Gov. Rick Perry in the gubernatorial race last year.

Among the top potential GOP candidates for the Hutchison seat are Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and former Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams, who just picked up the endorsement of former President George H.W. Bush.

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