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David Danbom, Published January 10 2010

Danbom: Hoeven’s moderate problem

Sen. Byron Dorgan’s, D-N.D., decision not to seek re-election for another term seemingly removes the last major impediment to a Senate run by Gov. John Hoeven, which he has been considering for several months with the encouragement of prominent national Republicans.

Hoeven doesn’t quite qualify as a perfect candidate. He is stiff on the stump, and he has that annoying habit of referring to himself queen-of-England style as “we.”

But it is likely to be a Republican year. Hoeven had the good fortune of presiding over North Dakota during one of our rare booms, and he has been an active governor who imaginatively addressed a number of the state’s problems, particularly in the area of education. In short, Hoeven would have been a strong candidate even against Dorgan and will likely be stronger yet against Dorgan’s replacement.

Getting elected to the Senate will be less of a problem for Hoeven than functioning effectively once he gets there. Hoeven’s great problem, you see, is that he is a moderate.

Hoeven’s moderation is partly a matter of temperament, I imagine, but it also reflects the fact that governors have to deal with real problems, while legislators have more freedom to preen and posture. In the spirit of Mark Andrews, Allen Olson, and other middle-of-the-road North Dakota Republicans, Hoeven believes that government has a role to play in mitigating social problems and making people’s lives better. At times that attitude has put him at odds with much of his own party and allied him with Democrats.

He will find that Washington is a very different world. There bipartisanship – derided by Republican ideologue Grover Norquist as “date rape” – is dead. The leaders of the “Party of No,” Southerners like Mitch McConnell, Jim DeMint and John Cornyn, demand unity in opposition to virtually everything the Obama administration favors. Part of this is just cynical partisan calculation, but it also reflects the ascendency of the all-government-is-bad mantra in the “Great Obstructionist Party.” It is hard to imagine that Hoeven, a practical problem-solver from a state that benefits disproportionately from federal spending, will be very comfortable with that.

Perhaps Hoeven will be able to stand up to the peer pressure he will face from his Senate colleagues. Other Republican moderates, such as Arlen Specter and Olympia Snowe, have found it difficult, to say the least. And it is not just the cold shoulder in the Republican caucus with which moderates have to

contend. They are systematically abused by the Rush Limbaughs and Glenn Becks of the world, and if they don’t march in lockstep to the right-wing beat all of the time they find themselves challenged by teabagger-approved zealots in Republican primaries. That wouldn’t be a problem for Hoeven now, because Republicans are desperate for the seat, but it could well be in 2016.

For Hoeven, getting elected might be the easy part. Remaining true to his principles will be hard.

Danbom is a professor of history, author and regular contributor to The Forum’s commentary pages.