WASHINGTON — Sen. Kent Conrad, a top Democrat, announced Tuesday that he will not seek re-election from North Dakota as the jockeying began in earnest for the tough 2012 battle to control the Senate.
Conrad announced his decision in the morning at almost the same time that Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., announced that he will seek a seventh term despite an expected challenge from the "tea party" movement. And Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, made it known that he will announce his decision Wednesday on whether he'll run again.
The future of the three seats go to the heart of the 2012 battle over control of the Senate. Democrats and their independent allies have a 53-47 edge in the Senate, a smaller majority than they had before the GOP won six seats in November and increased its influence. Democrats face a tough road in maintaining their majority since they have to defend 23 seats while the GOP is defending just 10.
The surprise was the departure of Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and regarded as a deficit hawk among Democrats who have battled Republican arguments that they are soft on economic issues.
"After months of consideration, I have decided not to seek re-election in 2012," Conrad wrote in a letter released by his office. Conrad, who has been in the Senate for 24 years, said he wanted to devote his time to other problems without having to worry about a re-election campaign.
"There are serious challenges facing our state and nation, like a $14 trillion debt and America's dependence on 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," Conrad said.
Conrad's decision follows a similar move by fellow Democrat Sen. Byron Dorgan, who announced last year he would not seek re-election. Dorgan was succeeded by a Republican, Sen. John Hoeven, a former governor of North Dakota.
Conrad was expected to have a tough re-election campaign in a state that has become increasingly Republican. Democrats maintained they could hold onto the North Dakota seat.
"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," Sen. Patty Murray, head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in a prepared statement. "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."
In a statement, President Obama praised Conrad for his "unmatched dedication to putting our country on a sound fiscal path and a commitment to meeting our nation's energy challenges. He has also been a good friend to me, and while I am saddened to see him leave the Senate, I look forward to working with him during the next two years on the important issues facing our country."
Lugar's announcement comes as conservatives were gearing up to challenge the Republican, considered a moderate on most issues, especially foreign policy. Lugar was a key voice in the Senate ratification last year of the latest arms control treaty with Russia.
In Connecticut, Lieberman is considered a liberal on many social issues but more conservative on defense issues. He lost the 2008 Democratic primary as an incumbent but waged a successful campaign to win re-election as an independent.
If Lieberman decides to seek another term, one of the issues will be if he seeks to run as a Democrat or as an independent.