BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who helped lead the state through the most prosperous time in its history thanks to an oil development boom, announced Monday that he won't seek re-election in 2016.
Dalrymple, 66, told reporters at the state Capitol in Bismarck that he and his wife, Betsy, made the decision last week to spend more time with family, including their five grandchildren.
"It was 100 percent a personal decision about how we want to spend our time down the road," he said.
The Republican served as the state's lieutenant governor for a decade — as North Dakota's oil industry and revenues grew— before moving into the governor's office in 2010, when then-Gov. John Hoeven resigned after winning a seat in the U.S. Senate.
Dalrymple was elected to a full term in 2012, touting his background in business, agriculture and government. The former state lawmaker and farmer helped found Dakota Growers Pasta Co., one of the nation's largest pasta manufacturers.
But it was during his tenure as governor and lieutenant governor that North Dakota became the nation's second biggest oil producing state after Texas, moving up from No. 9 in only eight years. The state's economy — led by western North Dakota's oil spurt— has created thousands of new jobs and North Dakota's unemployment rate is only 3 percent. The state also now has the nation's highest population growth.
Dalrymple said North Dakota's fortunes have swung radically with the exploitation of oil in the western part of the state.
"This will go down in history as the strongest period of investment in state history," he said.
While the oil rush brought money pouring into state coffers, it also led to problems such as rising crime, infrastructure bottlenecks and environmental accidents. The recent fall in oil prices has taken some shine off expansion and forced Dalrymple and state legislators to prioritize projects.
Dalrymple's announcement has further fueled speculation in the halls of the state Capitol in Bismarck that U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp, among the state's most popular Democrats, will run for governor next year.
Rumors, mainly from Republicans, have been swirling in North Dakota for months about a Heitkamp run for governor, a post no Democrat has held for almost 25 years.
Heitkamp, who is recovering from hip replacement surgery last week, has been mum on the subject.
"Senator Heitkamp is focused on her work to fight for North Dakotans in the U.S. Senate," her staff said in an email to The Associated Press.
North Dakota's Republican-led Legislature in April passed a bill that requires a special election to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat, something the governor could do previously. Democrats said at the time that GOP lawmakers were trying to discourage Heitkamp from running for governor by taking away the power to appoint a replacement.
Heitkamp's future could have national implications because if she runs for governor, Democrats would have to try to defend that seat in a Republican-leaning state. Senate Democrats need to make a net gain of at least four Republican seats in the 2016 elections to regain the majority in Washington.
Kelly Armstrong, chairman of the state GOP party, said there will be much speculation from both parties about who will run for governor.
"We will miss him," Armstrong said of Dalrymple. "But we have a deep bench and lot of qualified people who will have a chance to put their own legacy together. We will have a great candidate with a great platform in the next election."
Republicans hold every statewide office except for Heitkamp and some of those names figured prominently in speculation, including lieutenant governor Drew Wrigley and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.
Dalrymple is from rural Casselton, the home of five North Dakota governors, and came to the state Legislature in 1985 to represent a Cass County House district. He served eight terms, including six years as chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
He was lieutenant governor during Hoeven's entire tenure as governor, focusing on education, agriculture and budget issues. He oversaw a trade office that provides aid to North Dakota companies that want to sell goods overseas.
Hoeven released a statement Monday saying he understands the Dalrymples' "desire to spend more time with their growing family," and that Dalrymple has earned the respect of the state's residents during his three decades in public office.
Dalrymple said he has focused on management of that overall growth.
"North Dakota has made incredible progress and I feel so blessed to have been part of leading our state, especially in the years since 2000, truly a golden period for North Dakota," he said.