Here is a statistic about John Hoeven: after his first big victory in 2000, the banker-turned-governor-turned-senator has won every single general election since with at least 70% of the vote — and each share of the vote has been larger than the last. On paper, he is one of the state’s most invincible elected officials.
This is probably why his comments last month — that he will seek re-election to a third term in the U.S. Senate — didn’t make many waves. It’s nearly two years until Election Day. And who, today, could beat him?
Don’t ask Hoeven. For now, he has the luxury of letting his victories speak for themselves. Through his campaign, he declined an interview for this report.
“When asked, Senator Hoeven has said he is planning to run for reelection,” said Don Larson, a spokesman for his campaign committee. “But he feels that elections go on too long, so it is too early for him to be talking about a campaign. He is focused on doing his job for the people of North Dakota and the country.”
Reporters and politicians who have studied his Senate career will recognize this as classic Hoeven: an understated style, unswervingly focused on the work. He is the stylistic opposite of his North Dakota colleague, GOP Sen. Kevin Cramer, who has made a dose of Trumpian brashness a key part of his public image.
Take a series of late 2017 interviews. As Trump’s aggressive foreign policy with North Korea raised eyebrows in Washington, a Tennessee senator told the New York Times that the president was risking “World War III.” Trump’s secretary of state was reported to have called the president a “moron.”
When the Herald reached Cramer and Hoeven for comment, they both offered very similar, measured support for Trump. But Cramer’s answer veered into bombast, offering that Hillary Clinton had mismanaged Libya, and calling the Tennessee senator a “never-Trumper” (Cramer’s office did not make him available for an interview for this report).
Hoeven, on the other hand, was more characteristically genteel.
“I don't necessarily agree with everything (Trump) says or the way he says it. But I think the overall strategy is the right strategy,” Hoeven said. As for the “World War III” comment, Hoeven claimed he hadn’t read it.
But cultivating a public style is only one part of the job — casting Senate votes is entirely different. And on that count, both Cramer and Hoeven have been very similar. The political analysis website FiveThirtyEight indicates Cramer voted with President Trump’s position 94.1% of the time. Hoeven voted with Trump 92.2% of the time — a nearly identical record.
Hoeven has worked on a range of issues in the Senate, though in just the last few years, he’s raised the alarm over Russian pressure on oil markets; he’s helped negotiate border policy; and he’s closely overseen agricultural spending.
“He’s walked a fine line, but I think he recognizes that that’s what will probably work, right?” said Mark Jendrysik, a UND political scientist. “I don’t think his persona works for throwing red meat. I don’t think people in North Dakota want that from him. I think they want to get in that air of quiet conservative competence that he’s trying to project.”
So how has Hoeven lasted so long, and won so big? The consensus answer is that he understands North Dakota and, perhaps just as important, he knows how to read the political room.
State Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, attempted to unseat Hoeven in the 2008 governor’s race. He grants that Hoeven fought hard for school funding as governor, a reflection of what the voters wanted. He said the same of Hoeven’s Senate voting record, mostly in line with President Trump’s positions.
"He's a person who tests the wind, and then he follows what it is, and has very little leadership on the national level,” Mathern said. “He sort of holds the spot that people are comfortable with and makes do with that."
Mathern tells a story from the 1990s that he says helps illustrate his point. It’s a fact long-forgotten by most North Dakotans, but Hoeven briefly announced he was a Democrat in the 1990s, while leading the Bank of North Dakota, and was widely speculated to be a good Dem-NPL candidate for governor. Mathern says he even sent him a campaign check at one point — about $25 or so — to encourage him to run. He said Hoeven eventually returned it. The rest, of course, is (Republican) history.
“I should have kept that check,” Mathern said with a rueful laugh.
Former U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who lost her reelection bid to Cramer in 2018, clearly remembers these years, too. Asked about their long career alongside one another — as opponents in the 2000 governor’s race and later as North Dakota colleagues in Washington — her thoughts went to the 1990s.
“When I was in the majority on the Industrial Commission, we hired him to run the Bank of North Dakota,” she said, recalling her days as state attorney general in the 1990s, when she served alongside the governor and the agricultural commissioner to make those decisions. “In some ways, his start in politics is due to Democrats."
But the same canny political ability is, to friends, one of Hoeven’s greatest strengths — and for a politician who has been in the public eye since 2000, it’s a necessary ability. How different are Hoeven’s duties — and the country — from 20 years ago? How different is the Republican Party?
"I think (Hoeven’s) always been pretty smart at reading the pulse of the people, and he kind of moves where he has to move on issues,” said former state House Majority Leader Al Carlson, who represented Fargo. “If you notice, he's usually not boisterous, he's not negative … but he's moved as the state has moved. He's one of the leaders of a party that has a very big tent."
And, Carlson points out, he’s not one to quit.
"He'll work hard, he'll spend money. He'll advertise, he'll raise money,” Carlson said. “He doesn't like to win in a squeaker. He likes to win big."