Sen. Byron Dorgan (D)
Elected: 1992, term expires 2010, 3rd term.
Born: May 14, 1942, Dickinson .
Education: U. of ND, B.S. 1965, U. of Denver, M.B.A. 1966.
Family: Married (Kimberly); 4 children.
Elected office: ND Tax Commissioner, 1969–80; U.S. House of Reps., 1980–92.
Professional Career: Martin–Marietta Exec. Develop. Prog., 1966–68; ND dpty. tax commissioner, 1968–69.
Byron Dorgan, North Dakota’s junior senator, was first elected to the House in 1980 and to the Senate in 1992. He gave national Democrats a jolt in early 2010 with his announcement that he will not seek re-election as expected in November. The senator, who is well-regarded in Washington, was vulnerable politically as the climate soured for Democrats across the country. In a statement issued January 5, 2009, Dorgan said that after three decades in public service, he was ready for other pursuits. “I have other interests and I have other things I would like to pursue outside of public life,” he said. “I have written two books and have an invitation from a publisher to write two more books. I would like to do some teaching and would also like to work on energy policy in the private sector.” Dorgan’s departure created a major opening for Republicans in the 2010 election and put the Democrats’ 60-seat Senate supermajority in jeopardy. A strong possible candidate for the seat is three-term Republican Gov. John Hoeven, who had been contemplating a challenge to Dorgan.
|Byron Dorgan (D)||211,843||(68%)||($2,676,756)|
|Mike Liffrig (R)||98,553||(32%)||($381,125)|
|Byron Dorgan (D)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 1998 (63%), 1992 (59%), 1990 House (65%), 1988 House (71%), 1986 House (76%), 1984 House (79%), 1982 House (72%), 1980 House (57%)
Dorgan grew up in Regent, N.D. (population 268), where his family had a farm-equipment and petroleum business and raised cattle and horses. He was one of nine students in his high school graduating class. After college and business school, he worked for a Denver aerospace firm. Then in 1969, at age 26, he was appointed state tax commissioner, becoming the youngest constitutional officer in the state’s history. His politics are very much out of North Dakota’s democratic-socialist Non-Partisan League tradition: He has a strong mistrust of economic markets, a deep belief that government should intervene to protect the family farmer and small businessman, and a capacity to frame issues in a popular and unthreatening way. His first big issue as tax commissioner was taxing out-of-state corporations, which struck a chord in a state always hostile to big out-of-state money. Dorgan brought zest and cornball good humor to his work, and had a bright future in state politics. He ran for the House in 1974, and lost to Republican Mark Andrews. In 1980, when Andrews ran for the Senate, Dorgan was elected to the House. The cautious Dorgan declined to challenge Andrews for the Senate in 1986, a race that his successor as tax commissioner, Kent Conrad, won. And he declined to take on 80-year-old Sen. Quentin Burdick, a fellow Democrat, in 1988. But four years later, when Conrad unexpectedly announced he would not seek re-election, Dorgan finally ran for the Senate. (Conrad had a change of heart and came back to the Senate in a special election after Burdick died in office.) Dorgan and his Republican opponent both backed normal trade relations with China, a major buyer of North Dakota wheat, but remained wary of free trade otherwise. Dorgan won by a solid 59%-39%.
In the Senate, Dorgan’s voting record has been similar to Conrad’s—generally moderate to liberal, and more centrist on cultural issues. This is one case where senators of the same party from the same state have worked harmoniously together. They call themselves, along with Earl Pomeroy, the state’s at-large representative, “Team North Dakota.” Dorgan strongly backed South Dakotan Tom Daschle for Senate Democratic leader in 1994 and became an assistant floor leader. In 1998, he considered running for whip against Harry Reid of Nevada, but withdrew and became co-chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee. In 2004, when Daschle was defeated for re-election and it became apparent that Reid had the votes to succeed him as minority leader, Dorgan started running for party whip, but quickly dropped out when it was clear Richard Durbin of Illinois had the votes. “It seemed to me that a number of our members felt that, for our two top spots, at least one should be from a blue state,” he said. Unhappy with the Republican-controlled Senate’s lack of oversight of the Bush administration, he used the policy committee to hold quasi-hearings on topics ranging from post-Hurricane Katrina relief to contracting abuses in Iraq. When Democrats returned to the majority in 2007, Dorgan made his Policy Committee chairmanship more visible in setting the party’s agenda in the Senate. Dorgan took on oil speculators and media moguls trying to concentrate their holdings, investigating the merger of two satellite-radio companies. He was also a strong advocate of loosened restrictions on importation of prescription drugs from abroad.
Dorgan continues to be a champion of family farms, even as their numbers decline. He has been a leading proponent of crop insurance and disaster relief packages. On both the 2002 and 2008 farm bills, he and Republican Charles Grassley of Iowa led the move to cap farm subsidies at $250,000. He argued that too much would go to a few rich farmers and said he feared that such payments would instigate opposition to the farm bill. (Anyway, not many North Dakota or Iowa farmers qualify for huge payments.) Their effort failed under both Republican and Democratic control.
A theme throughout Dorgan’s voting record is a distrust of unfettered economic markets. During the 1990s, he often criticized Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan for backing high interest rates, and he was one of four senators to vote against his reconfirmation as Fed chairman in 2000. He advocates a more vigorous antitrust policy, with temporary bans on agribusiness and airline mergers. He opposes individual investment accounts for Social Security and has sought to expand access to broadband Internet service in rural communities. In July 2006, he promoted his new book, Take This Job and Ship It: How Corporate Greed and Brain-Dead Politics Are Selling Out America. Dorgan believes that free-trade deals have led to sweatshop production, and in 2007 he strongly opposed renewing a grant of broad negotiating authority for the president in free-trade deals with other countries. In the 110th Congress (2007-08), he led opposition to expanding guest-worker programs during the immigration debate. But his objections to trade stopped at his state’s border. To promote North Dakota grain sales, Dorgan has been a prime mover in scaling back the embargo on Cuba. He has called the embargo “one of the greatest follies of American foreign policy.” He attacked the Bush administration proposal to require Cuban purchasers to make payments before goods were shipped. His amendment to permit travel to Cuba for agricultural purposes was dropped from the final farm spending bill in 2007 because of fears that Bush would veto it.
Dorgan has backed wind-energy projects, in which North Dakota is a leader. During debate on the 2007 energy bill, he teamed with Republican Larry Craig of Idaho on a measure to increase fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks by 4% a year from 2012 to 2030. He has worked for several years to create a Red River Valley Research Corridor, to link North Dakota colleges and businesses with federal research contracts.
Dorgan is the chairman of the Indian Affairs committee. In the last Congress (2007-08), he was able to get passed the first overhaul of Indian health programs since 1992. “We spend twice as much on health services for federal prisoners as we do on health services for American Indians,” he asserted. He also wants to expand economic development and youth centers, and to encourage the settlement of long-running litigation over Interior Department mismanagement of Indian trust funds. While in the minority, Dorgan teamed with Arizona Republican John McCain to investigate abuses by GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the bilking of Indian tribes. When news reports documented large campaign contributions to Dorgan from some of those tribes, the senator heatedly replied that he had long backed the Indian projects and others “will try to spin a web of deception to smear and discredit those of us who are investigating the wrongdoing.”
Dorgan has been easily re-elected. In 1998, he beat state Sen. Donna Nalewaja 63%-35%, carrying every county but one, where the vote was tied. For 2004, national Republicans tried to recruit former Gov. Ed Schafer, but he declined. The Republican nominee, rancher Mike Liffrig, attacked Dorgan for supporting human cloning (in response, Dorgan altered a bill he’d sponsored). One opposition ad portrayed gay couples at the altar, with two men in black ties about to kiss. The voiceover said, “You can kiss our North Dakota values goodbye or you can kiss Senator Dorgan goodbye.” But with far more money and more than three decades of winning statewide races, Dorgan won easily, 68%-32%. This time he carried every county.