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Published January 13, 2011, 08:08 AM

GOP's Kalk exploring US Senate bid

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk is setting up an exploratory committee to raise money for a possible campaign against Democratic U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad in 2012.

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk is setting up an exploratory committee to raise money for a possible campaign against Democratic U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad in 2012.

The Republican told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he's received contributions from GOP activists who are eager for him to run against Conrad. The incumbent Democrat was first elected to the Senate in 1986.

Kalk, 44, outlined his plans in an e-mail, which was sent to supporters Wednesday night and obtained by the AP.

"This week, we have filed the necessary (Federal Election Commission) paperwork to set up the Kalk for Senate exploratory committee," the e-mail says.

"Our nation faces unprecedented challenges as we move into the second decade of the new century," it says. "We are all concerned about the direction America is going. I believe we have to change that direction and get our beloved country back on track."

Joe Aronson, director of the North Dakota Democratic Party, said Conrad would be a formidable candidate if he chooses to run for re-election. "It's a little earlier than we're used to in North Dakota," Aronson said of Kalk's possible candidacy.

"I would hope his work on the commission wouldn't suffer as a result," Aronson said. "Running for the Senate isn't an easy task by any stretch of the imagination."

FEC rules allow Kalk to use the exploratory committee to raise up to $5,000 without declaring himself a candidate.

In an interview, Kalk said he had not decided whether to run and that he would make up his mind "sooner rather than later." His e-mail said he would mull the question "over the next few months."

Conrad, 62, has said he is undecided about whether to run for re-election in 2012.

Conrad faces a new atmosphere in Washington. For his entire Senate career, North Dakota's three-member congressional delegation had been solidly Democratic — until January, when newly elected Republican Sen. John Hoeven and Rep. Rick Berg took office.

North Dakota's other Democratic senator, Byron Dorgan, did not seek re-election last year, and Berg handily defeated incumbent Democrat Earl Pomeroy. Conrad, Dorgan and Pomeroy served together for 18 years, said they were best friends and advertised themselves as "Team North Dakota" in their home state.

Kalk was elected to the PSC in 2008, succeeding incumbent Republican Susan Wefald, who retired. He defeated Bismarck state Sen. Bob Stenehjem, the Republican majority leader and brother of Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, for the GOP endorsement for the job.

A native of Bottineau, Kalk served for 20 years in the Marine Corps before retiring as a major in 2006. He holds a doctorate in natural resource management from North Dakota State University and taught at NDSU before being elected to the three-member regulatory board. His term on the commission runs through 2014.

The Public Service Commission regulates public utilities, telecommunications, grain elevators, coal mining, land reclamation and auctioneers.

North Dakota's energy boom has raised the profile of the PSC because of its responsibilities for siting pipelines and wind farms and deciding requests for electric and natural gas rate increases. The PSC also is reviewing a request to establish a new 4,600-acre coal mine near South Heart in southwestern North Dakota.

As a utility regulator, Kalk has been critical of federal proposals to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions through a "cap and trade" mechanism that would allow the buying and selling of pollution rights. He believes the strategy would drive up the cost of North Dakota-produced electricity without delivering any significant environmental benefit.

Electric power production is a major North Dakota industry. The state has six lignite-fueled power plants in western North Dakota's coal-producing region and wind turbines across the state that are capable of producing more than 1,200 megawatts of power.

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