The Politician Who (Technically) Kept His Pledge

When politicians run for office, they tend to make promises to the electorate — and often, they fail to follow through. One could easily fill thousands of words outlining examples of these broken promises, but that would be a story for another publication. And, in fairness, many politicians deliver on many, if not most of the promises they make — we shouldn’t pretend that all (or even most) politicians are habitual liars who are only out to empower themselves. 

But what if you could keep your promise to step down from power, but somehow win election again? It’s possible, with a little bit of luck. Just ask Kent Conrad, who served as one of North Dakota’s senators for 26 years, despite declining to run for re-election after his first six-year term.

Conrad’s story began in 1986. Mark Andrews — no relation to the Baltimore Ravens tight end whose injury is jeopardizing my fantasy football team’s championship aspirations — was one of two U.S. Senators from the state of North Dakota. He was finishing up his first term in office and was running for re-election. Kent Conrad, the state tax commissioner, ran against him, and the campaign wasn’t an easy one. Both candidates slung a lot of mud and made a lot of promises, and Conrad made perhaps the biggest promise of them all. Voters, he surmised, were concerned about the federal budget deficit. To curry their favor, Conrad pledged that if he were elected, and the deficit was greater when his term expired in 1992, he wouldn’t seek re-election.

Conrad won the 1986 election by a hair, receiving 49.8% of the vote to Andrews’ 49.07%. He was generally very popular in North Dakota but he was also a man of his word; as the 1992 campaign approached, the federal deficit was larger than it had been when he was elected, and Conrad decided to not run for re-election. Instead, the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party (that’s North Dakota’s Democratic Party affiliate) nominated Byron Dorgan (see page 2 of that pdf), the state’s lone member of the House of Representatives, to run in Conrad’s place. And on Election Day that year, Dorgan won. 

Conrad’s senate career should have come to a close on January 3, 1993, when Dorgan was to be sworn into office — just like all of the other would-be Senators elected in the fall of 1992. But Dorgan ended up taking the oath of office a few weeks earlier — because Conrad, pledge notwithstanding, was about to make a comeback. On September 8, 1992, North Dakota’s other Senator, Quentin Burdick, died. The governor, George Sinner, appointed Burdick’s widow, Jocelyn, to fill the seat until a special election could be held, and Jocelyn decided not to run in that election. But Kent Conrad did. In his view, his pledge to not seek re-election was fulfilled when he stepped aside for Dorgan, and the voters should decide whether they agreed. As he told the Associated Press, “When my [original] seat came up [for re-election], I declined in order to keep my word. Today, we face a new circumstance.”

The Democratic-NPL Party nominated Conrad easily, and on December 4, 1992, Conrad won the special election, 63.2% to 33.8% over state representative (and future North Dakota governor) Jack Dalrymple. Conrad, therefore, held one of North Dakota’s two Senate seats while simultaneously being the Senator-elect for the other one. He should have been sworn into the new seat without delay, but, while the Constitution doesn’t explicitly address this, you can’t have the same person in two Senate seats at the same time. So on December 14, 1992, Conrad resigned from his original Senate seat and then was sworn into the one previously held by the Burdicks. 

Conrad’s resignation do-si-do created another vacancy — the seat he was keeping warm for Dorgan was now vacant. Governor Sinner addressed this in the most appropriate if not obvious way possible: he appointed Dorgan into the seat. Both ended up with long Senate careers: Conrad successfully ran for re-election three more times and retired in 2012; Dorgan won re-election twice, serving until 2010.

Bonus fact: The appointment of Jocelyn Burdick to her late husband’s Senate seat may seem strange, but the practice was very common for much of the 20th century. More than fifty women have succeeded their late husbands in office — some by appointment, others gaining the seat via an election — in United States history. (Here’s a list.) 

From the Archives: First Dakota: Which came first, North Dakota or South Dakota? No one knows — and that’s by design.