Politics

The Price of Popularity

John Hoeven may be something close to the perfect candidate for the U.S. Senate. The Republican governor is North Dakota's most popular politician and,...
by | March 1, 2010

John Hoeven may be something close to the perfect candidate for the U.S. Senate. The Republican governor is North Dakota's most popular politician and, perhaps, the most popular governor in the nation. But as he pursues a campaign for U.S. Senate this year, Hoeven has one potential liability: his popularity as governor.

Hoeven was elected to a third term as governor in November 2008, meaning his term doesn't expire until December 2012. If North Dakotans want Hoeven in the Senate, they'll have to give him up as governor.

Other states haven't always taken kindly to governors asking to go to Washington, D.C., before finishing their terms back home. In 1994, William Weld was re-elected governor of Massachusetts with 71 percent of the vote, while Ben Nelson was re-elected Nebraska governor with 73 percent of the vote, each to new four-year terms. Two years later, both thought they could turn their popularity into winning U.S. Senate campaigns. Months before the election, polls showed both candidates running strongly. Both ended up losing badly. The message from voters was clear: We like the job you're doing as governor, and we want you to keep doing it.

North Dakota Democrats are hoping their state's voters will send the same message this fall. As soon as Hoeven announced he was running in January, the party criticized him for changing his mind on wanting to serve as governor. Hoeven had won his new term just 14 months earlier.

This argument reflected the history of Weld and Nelson, but it also reflected the lack of alternative lines of criticism from Democrats. While the rest of the country has been awash in red ink and job losses, North Dakota has been gaining jobs, gaining population and running budget surpluses. As a result, Hoeven has cut taxes and increased education spending. In 2008, Hoeven was re-elected with more than 74 percent of the vote, winning 52 of North Dakota's 53 counties. "It's hard to find anyone to say a bad word about him around the state," says Mark Jendrysik, a political scientist at the University of North Dakota. "The biggest debate in the state is whether he'll shave off his mustache."

Hoeven also has the luxury of being a Republican running in a red state in what's shaping up to be a Republican year. Nelson and Weld, despite their popularity, represented their state's minority party. Hoeven announced his campaign days after longtime Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan said he wouldn't seek a new term. So far, the only Democratic candidate is a first-term state senator. Add it all up and Hoeven is a strong favorite to win. But if somehow he doesn't, Weld and Nelson can tell him why.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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