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Al Eisele

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How North Dakota Lost Its Clout in Congress

Posted: 07/01/11 11:40 PM ET

For the last two decades, no state wielded more political influence per capita in the nation's capital than North Dakota, thanks to the three veteran Democrats who made up its entire congressional delegation.

With a smaller population than all but Vermont and Wyoming, the Peace Garden State's more than 670,000 residents could count on their two senators and lone House member to capitalize on nearly three quarters of a century of combined seniority to look out for their interests in Washington.

With Sen. Kent Conrad serving as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and a member of the Finance Committee; Sen. Byron Dorgan as chairman of the agenda-setting Senate Democratic Policy Committee and the Indian Affairs Committee, and a member of the Appropriations Committee's Agriculture subcommittee; and Rep. Earl Pomeroy as a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee, the powerful trio made sure their state got a disproportionate share of federal largess.

In 2009, for example, North Dakota ranked fourth per capita among state recipients of federal dollars, which might explain why a conservative state that last voted for a Democrat for president in 1964, continued to reelect Democrats to represent it in Congress.

But that was then and this is now, after Dorgan stepped down in January after 30 years in Congress, the last 18 in the Senate, Pomeroy was defeated in November after 18 years in the House, and Conrad announced he won't seek reelection next year after 25 years in the Senate.

But except for Conrad, whose influence has been diminished by his lame duck status and his failure to persuade the Senate's bipartisan "Gang of Six" to agree on a long term deficit reduction package, the North Dakota trio might as well be back in Bismarck, where they began their political careers in state government.

Even Conrad's wife hasn't escaped the bad karma emanating from her husband's state. Lucy Calautti, a New York native who met Conrad when they both worked for Byron Dorgan, then state tax commissioner, is the Washington lobbyist for Major League Baseball, which is in the throes of a bitter labor dispute.

Meanwhile, Dorgan's successor, former GOP Gov. John Hoeven, and former state House Speaker Rick Berg, who upset Pomeroy to become the first Republican to hold that seat in 24 years, are still trying to learn their way around the Capitol, even as North Dakotans grapple with devastating spring floods and federal budget pressures that could impact two major Air Force bases as well as the state's billion-dollar agricultural subsidies.

And although North Dakota boasts the nation's lowest unemployment rate, thanks mainly to an oil boom in the western part of the state that has created a billion-dollar budget surplus

Even with the departure of his two colleagues, Conrad seemed poised to play a key role in helping President Obama and Senate Democrats win the battle over how to tackle the nation's budget deficit. But after bargaining for months in secret negotiations with the so-called Gang of Six senators, the effort collapsed amid partisan rancor in March amid accusations by fellow Democrats that Conrad had undercut Obama.

That probably influenced Conrad's decision to retire, even though he's only 63 and won reelection with 69 percent of the vote six years ago.

(This is the second time Conrad decided to retire; he pledged during his first Senate campaign in 1986 that he wouldn't run for a second term if the federal trade and budget deficits weren't reduced, and kept his promise in 1992. But he ran in a special election that December after the death of Democrat Quentin Burdick, and was elected to serve the remaining two years of the 83-year-old Burdick's term before winning three more terms.)

Conrad's decision was a blow to Democrats' hopes of keeping control of the Senate after the 2012 elections. With Democrats having to defend 23 seats, many of them in conservative-leaning states, compared to only 10 for Republicans, it will be difficult for the Democrats to hold on to their 53-47 majority.

As for Conrad's post-Senate career, it is unlikely he'll return to North Dakota since, like his wife, he's a passionate fan of major league baseball. More likely, he'll follow the lead of Dorgan and Pomeroy, who are Washington lobbyists.

But whatever Conrad does, North Dakota will no longer enjoy its status as one of the biggest small states in Congress.