North Dakota Governor’s Retirement Refocuses Attention on Heitkamp

"Heitkamp for governor" rumors have rumbled under the surface all year, and her 2016 plans could affect control of the U.S. Senate.

North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple announced Monday that he will not seek reelection in 2016, renewing speculation over whether first-term Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp will consider running for governor again, more than a decade-and-a-half after her first try.

In response to queries about the gubernatorial race, Heitkamp spokeswoman Abbie McDonough said, "Sen. Heitkamp is focused on her work to fight for North Dakotans in the U.S. Senate." Heitkamp's office also sent out a statement praising Dalrymple's service.

Speculation that Heitkamp could run for governor has swirled all year, as she has dodged questions while never ruling out a bid. Heitkamp ran for governor in 2000 but lost to Republican John Hoeven, now her colleague in the Senate.

Possible Republican candidates include Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley and state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.

Back in April, GOP Rep. Kevin Cramer predicted that Heitkamp would run for the seat if Dalrymple retired. North Dakota Republican Party chairman Kelly Armstrong told the Forum News Service on Monday "We've been preparing like she's going to get in the race until she says she's not going to get in the race." Earlier this year, state Republicans passed a law preventing future governors from making U.S. Senate appointments, with an eye toward keeping Heitkamp from being able to appoint her replacement if she ran and won.

In February, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, the chair of the Democratic Governors Association, expressed enthusiasm about the possibility of a Heitkamp run, saying, "Heidi is a rock star and we'd love to see her run." But the association isn't expecting her to take the plunge, with one aide saying, "I don't think any of us really expect her to do it, but it's not impossible."

If Heitkamp did decide to run for governor, it could lengthen Democrats' odds of taking back the Senate. They need to net at least four seats to win back the chamber in 2016, but if Heitkamp became governor, she would almost certainly be replaced by a Republican in the Senate. And if she lost a gubernatorial race, she'd enter the 2018 midterm election cycle having just been rejected by North Dakota voters.

"Before this announcement, we had been aggressively recruiting candidates for our ticket all the way from the top of the ticket to the bottom, and from our perspective this decision does not impact that work that we are doing," said Robert Haider, the executive director of the North Dakota Democratic-Nonpartisan League Party. Haider pointed to U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon, state Sen. Mac Schneider, and state Sen. George B. Sinner, the son of former Democratic Gov. George A. Sinner, as some of the party's potential recruits outside of Heitkamp.