Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: email@example.com
Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling had a good post the other day slicing and dicing gubernatorial approval numbers. He showed that right now governors in small states are, on average, more popular than governors of large states, that Republican governors are more popular than Democratic governors and that governors in states won by John McCain are more popular than governors in states won by Barack Obama (regardless of party affiliation).
In that context, you can see why North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven is regarded as a heavy favorite for U.S. Senate this fall, now that Sen. Byron Dorgan has announced his retirement. Hoeven is a Republican governor from a small state that was carried by McCain. More to the point, he's a really popular governor. That's why he's such a strong candidate.
But, Hoeven also has a major weakness, one that hasn't gotten enough attention: He's a really popular governor.
Hoeven was elected to a third four-year term in 2008. His term doesn't run out until after 2012. For Hoeven to win, he won't just have to persuade North Dakota voters that he would make a good senator. He has to persuade them that they'd rather have him as a senator than a governor.
That tends to be a difficult sell. The best somewhat recent example was in 1996. Even as his fellow Democrats were getting obliterated across the country, Ben Nelson was reelected governor of Nebraska with 73% of the vote in 1994. Two years later, halfway into his gubernatorial term, he decided to run for Senate.
Even in a much better Democratic year, Nelson's Senate bid turned out to be a disaster. He won just 42% of the vote in losing to Republican Chuck Hagel. A big part of the reason was that Nebraska voters wanted Nelson to stick in the job for which they'd already elected him.
Hoeven's situation definitely isn't a perfect comparison. Nebraska is a Republican state, so Nelson faced more difficulties running for federal office than governor (he ended up being elected to the Senate in 2000, but it wasn't easy). North Dakota is a Republican-leaning state and seems especially likely to want to elect a Republican this year, giving Hoeven an edge.
So, Hoeven deserves the title of strong frontrunner. Still, Democrats have a slight opening with an unorthodox message: John Hoeven is such a great governor that it would be a shame for him to do anything else.
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