Republican strategists are juiced up about the announcement today that Sen. Kent Conrad, D-ND, has decided not to seek re-election in 2012.

In the wake of Senator Hoeven's overwhelming victory last year, Senate Republicans fully expected North Dakota to be a major battleground in 2012, but Senator Conrad's retirement dramatically reshapes this race in the Republicans' favor, said Brian Walsh, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Conrad, a popular and powerful lawmaker from a state tending Republican in recent years, has served in the Senate since 1986 and is chairman of the Appropriations Committee. He was also a member of President Obama's bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.

The commission, in December, made a series of recommendations for reining in the $1.3 trillion federal deficit and eventually reducing the $14 trillion national debt.  The plan did not receive the necessary backing from commission members to force Congress to consider it. Conrad was one of the panel members who supported the plan and has been working on ways to introduce parts of the plan into legislation.

He said he was retiring to devote more time to dealing with the issue of the debt.

After months of consideration, I have decided not to seek reelection in 2012, Conrad said in a release. 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 reelection.

Conrad outlined his priorities over the next two years in office, with the top three being; to put the nation on a sound fiscal course; to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign energy; and to craft a new farm bill.

Conrad's colleague, former Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-ND, did not seek re-election in 2010, and his Senate seat was taken by Republican John Hoeven. Also in 2010, North Dakota's only seat in the House was wrested from Democrat Earl Pomeroy by Rep. Rick Berg, R-ND.

Republicans took control of the House in the 2010 mid-term elections and closed the gap in the Senate from 59-41 to 53-47. They are hopeful of taking control of that chamber in 2012. The retirement of the popular senator should  make that task less difficult.

We believe this race represents one of the strongest pickup opportunities for Senate Republicans this cycle and will invest whatever resources are necessary to win next year, NRSC's Walsh said.

Democrats are not conceding anything.

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, said Sen. Patty Murray, D-WA, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

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, Murray said.