BISMARCK – U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said Tuesday she won’t drag out her decision on whether to run for North Dakota governor now that Gov. Jack Dalrymple isn’t seeking re-election in November 2016.
“I know that there is a need for me to say, to actually make this decision so that others who might be considering it in the Democratic Party can have the most amount of time,” she said in a phone interview with Forum News Service.
Heitkamp said she doesn’t have a timeline for her decision, but added, “It’ll be sooner rather than later.”
In what could be a $1 million-plus race, second-term U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said he’s not considering a run for governor.
“I think both I and North Dakotans are best served by my continuing in Congress,” he said.
Related: Dalrymple's out, but who’s in?
Cramer said he wouldn’t be surprised to start hearing candidates declare “within days, not weeks,” or at least announce the formation of exploratory committees.
Heitkamp said a race against Dalrymple, who announced Monday his decision not to run, would have been “extraordinarily difficult,” adding, “I wouldn’t be as forthcoming as I’d like to be if I said that Jack’s departure was totally irrelevant.”
Heitkamp, who would have two years remaining on her Senate term, said she now must weigh what’s best for her family and where she can best serve the interest of North Dakotans, noting there are many issues hanging in Congress right now, including a long-term transportation funding bill.
“There’s just so many issues, including the Fargo diversion, where there is a huge intersection between the interest of North Dakota and decisions that are made in Washington, D.C.,” she said.
Because of a law the North Dakota Legislature passed last spring, Heitkamp wouldn’t be able to appoint her own replacement in the U.S. Senate should she run for governor and win. A special election would be held to fill the vacancy, and Democrats already need to win five of seven seats in 2016 to gain a majority in the Senate.
Asked if she’s under pressure from national Democrats not to run for governor, Heitkamp said there are those who would want to encourage her one way or another.
“The wishes of the national Democratic Party are the furthest thing from my mind as I make this decision,” she said.
Heitkamp said the new law will have no bearing on her decision.
“The bottom line is anyone who wants this job should have to compete for this job,” she said of her Senate seat, though she called Republican lawmakers’ push for the law “silly.”
North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party chairwoman Kylie Oversen, a state representative from Grand Forks, said it’s hard to predict when candidates will start declaring because Dalrymple’s decision not to run was somewhat unexpected.
“I would hope sometime between October and the end of November we would have some folks starting to step up,” she said, adding official announcements probably won’t happen until January.
While Heitkamp would likely be the favorite for the Democratic nomination – though she said “there’s no presumptive nominee” – Oversen said the party isn’t sitting back and waiting for her decision and has been actively recruiting candidates.
“We don’t want to be left sitting on our hands if she announces next month that she’s not interested and is definitely not running,” she said.
Democratic delegates will choose their nominee for governor during their state convention March 31-April 2 at the Bismarck Event Center. Republicans will do the same April 1-3 at Scheels Arena in Fargo.
Lloyd Omdahl, a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and former political science professor at the University of North Dakota, said serious contenders for governor will spend the coming weeks staking their claims in subtle ways, networking and gathering indirect endorsements from groups to gauge their support.
As for Heitkamp, “I still think she’s going to stay in Washington,” he said.
Heitkamp said she doesn’t consider the governor’s office a step down, calling it “the highest political office you can hold in North Dakota.” She fell short in her 2000 gubernatorial bid, losing to now-Sen. John Hoeven, and Republicans have maintained control of the office since.
House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, said because the race will likely be expensive, voters can expect to see candidates declaring their intentions this fall, a year or more out from Election Day.
“This is easily a $1 million-plus race, and you need to have the organization and the people and the machine to raise that money,” Carlson said.
But as of right now, “everybody’s sitting on their hands waiting to see what Heidi’s going to do,” he said.
Carlson, who has served as House majority leader for four consecutive legislative sessions, said he likes his current job and a run for governor “is not at the top of my list,” but he didn’t rule it out.
“Never say never. You always look at things,” he said.
Carlson said the list of potential GOP candidates starts with Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, “and after that it’s a lot of wild cards.”
Rep. Cramer said he doesn’t see the GOP race as an heir-apparent type of situation. While Wrigley and Stenehjem may be at the top the list for many, the field isn’t confined to them, he said.
“But I do think if somebody else was going to get in, there’s a little more urgency to the timing,” he said.
The last Democrat to run for governor, former state senator Ryan Taylor of Towner, revealed his intent to run in late October 2011 and officially declared on Dec. 12 of that year, losing to Dalrymple the following November. Taylor said announcing early has its advantages in terms of organizing campaign staff and fundraising, but “it’s not a simple decision to make, and it shouldn’t be, because it has an impact on career and family.”
Taylor said he won’t seek the governor’s office again in 2016, noting he has run two statewide campaigns in the last four years, having run unsuccessfully for state agriculture commissioner last fall. He said he’s focused on his job as the North Dakota state director for U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development.
“The standard line is ‘never say never,’ but this is pretty close,” he said.