Not A Very Flattering Portrait Of Former North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad


Lindsay Mark Lewis is a former political fundraiser who has written a new book called Political Mercenaries: The Inside Story of How Fundraisers Allowed Billionaires to Take Over Politics. In Politico Magazine today he’s got a column about one of the politicians he worked for, former North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad.

It doesn’t paint a very flattering portrait. Here’s an excerpt:

The fact was, though, that Conrad was spending too much time raising way too much money, given his historically weak competition. He had won his previous two Senate races handily. By 1999, he was a known quantity in North Dakota, a political stalwart whom no opponent would touch for the next 14 years.

Yet Conrad wanted to keep up with the Joneses. In this new climate, to be considered a player in the Senate in the year 2000, raising money helped show how powerful you were, it helped get the press’s attention and it made the other kids in the playground—your Senate colleagues—want to be associated with you. Senators were buying higher profiles, spending valuable time raising money when they could be getting to know their colleagues or writing legislation. …

Where Conrad differed from other senators, though, was that Conrad hoarded his money. If others raised more than they needed, they would often give it away to the party committees or other candidates. Not Conrad. The year I worked for him, Democratic Senate candidates Brian Schweitzer in Montana and Chuck Robb in Virginia were in tight races. Power in the Senate hung in the balance, and a win by either one would have given control to Democrats. Though he was sitting on more than $2 million, Conrad transferred just $20,000—less than 1 percent—to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Schweitzer lost his race by three points; Robb lost his by five. Conrad might have given a lot more to the DSCC—transfers to party committees aren’t subject to limits—and helped push maybe one over the edge. Both could have still come up short, but we’ll never know.

The difference between a guy like Dick Gephardt and a guy like Kent Conrad was clear to me: Gephardt was a real middle-class champion. The money I’d raised for him actually meant something. Sure, we raised more than he needed for his own campaigns, but he put that extra money to use, spreading the wealth to other Democratic candidates. That helped the party. The dole outs also solidified his position in leadership, but that—in my mind anyway—was a forgivable sin along the way to changing the world. Conrad, on the other hand, raised money just to raise money. It was about him and only him. It had no effect on other candidates or a greater cause.


To be fair to Conrad, he did empty out his coffers during the last political cycle of his career. In 2012, after he had announced his retirement and while Heidi Heitkamp was running (successfully, as it turned out) to replace him in the Senate, he donated $916,000 to the DSCC and the Demcorats’ state party here in North Dakota. He also poured another tens of thousands into state-level races in North Dakota, including Ryan Taylor’s unsuccessful gubernatorial bid.

So, in the end, Conrad was generous. When he was retiring and didn’t need the money.

His campaign also had more than a quarter million dollars in “operating expenditures” in 2012, which is odd for a man not running a campaign.

You can read his year-end filing with the FEC for the 2012 cycle here.

Conrad finally terminated his campaign committee in early 2013, reporting over $14,000 in “operating expenditures” for the first three months of that year and closing out with less than $200 in cash on hand.