WASHINGTON—Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota announced his retirement Tuesday morning in a letter to supporters, a setback for his party's hopes of retaining its Senate majority in 2012.
Mr. Conrad's departure after next year will make it harder for Democrats to hold his seat in what could be a tough election season for the party. Democrats will defend 23 Senate seats, many of them in conservative or swing states such as North Dakota, Missouri and Nebraska. Republicans are defending only 10 Senate seats in 2012.
So far, the only Republican to announce retirement plans is Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, whose seat is considered easy for the GOP to retain. The GOP picked up six Senate seats in November, leaving Democrats with 53 seats, to 47 for the Republicans.
Mr. Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, is one of the chamber's leading deficit hawks and experts on fiscal matters. He is expected to spend his remaining two years focused on efforts to reduce the deficit and the mounting federal debt. Relieved of the pressures of a tough re-election bid, Mr. Conrad may be emboldened to propose politically risky budget measures.
"There are serious challenges facing our state and nation, like a $14 trillion debt and America's dependence on foreign oil," Mr. Conrad said in his letter 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 re-election."
Mr. Conrad was a member of President Barack Obama's bipartisan fiscal commission that in December recommended a far-reaching plan to cut government spending, overhaul the tax code and rein in entitlement programs. Congress is not required to take up the panel's recommendations, but Mr. Conrad is part of a bipartisan group of senators who are drafting legislation to keep the recommendations alive at least for debate.
As chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Mr. Conrad will still be lead author of the annual budget resolutions that will shape how Democrats respond to House Republican demands for big spending cuts in the remaining two years of the Obama administration. Mr. Obama has also said he will include spending cuts in his next budget, to be released in February.
Mr. Conrad was first elected to the Senate in 1986. It will be difficult for any Democrat other than him to hold onto his seat. In 2010, Republican John Hoeven won 76% of the vote in the course of picking up the seat vacated by Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan.
At the same time, a Republican took the state's only House seat with 55% of the vote, defeating Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D., N.D.).
The state has become an emblem of Democrats' weakened position in the upper Midwest. North Dakota's three-person delegation had been held entirely by Democrats since 1992. Like South Dakota and Montana, the state has often displayed a kind of prairie populism and a centrist streak in its social attitudes that has allowed Democrats to win congressional seats even while voters favored Republicans in presidential elections.
Republicans welcomed Mr. Conrad's announcement. "Senate Republicans fully expected North Dakota to be a major battleground in 2012, but Sen. Conrad's retirement dramatically reshapes this race in the Republicans' favor,'' said Brian Walsh, communications director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "We believe this race represents one of the strongest pickup opportunities for Senate Republicans this cycle and will invest whatever resources are necessary to win next year."
Democrats may now look for a centrist candidate to stay competitive in the race to succeed Mr. Conrad. Names offered include Mr. Pomeroy, former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp and her brother Joel Heitkamp, a former state senator, local activist and radio personality, among others.
"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," the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said in a statement.
The state was likely to see a hotly contested Senate election, even if Mr. Conrad had decided to run. Outside political groups had already begun airing radio ads for and against the incumbent.
The Wall Street Journal Online
It just keeps getting worse for us Nodaks.