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MATTERS AT HAND: Stability makes dull politics, but that may change

Reacting to the scandal involving Mark Sanford, a South Carolina pundit said, "Politics here are never dull." That used to be true of North Dakota, too, but politics here have been pretty dull since the 1980s. That tumultuous decade brought the d...

Reacting to the scandal involving Mark Sanford, a South Carolina pundit said, "Politics here are never dull."

That used to be true of North Dakota, too, but politics here have been pretty dull since the 1980s. That tumultuous decade brought the defeat of two sitting governors and a sitting U.S. senator. It also saw power pass between parties in the Legislature and voters repudiate a legislative tax plan by defeating eight referred measures.

Yet, the '80s also ushered in a period of remarkable stability in the state.

Of course, stability makes for dull politics -- unless someone suggests shaking things up.

That's what Gov. John Hoeven did last week, when he suggested he might challenge U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan after all. He'll decide in the fall, Hoeven said.

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Such a contest would be a clash of titans, just the fix that political junkies seek.

Alas, it is not likely to happen.

I've said before that I doubt Hoeven will decide to make the race, for family reasons, which are never to be challenged, and for political reasons, which may be second-guessed.

The political reasons are these:

The timing is bad. True, Hoeven could run for the U.S. Senate without giving up his current job, and that makes the prospect tempting. But the 2010 election occurs at the midpoint of President Obama's first term, not an auspicious time to challenge senators of a president's own party.

The prospects are also bad. Dorgan is a proven vote-getter. He

hasn't been challenged effectively since his political career began in the late 1960s, when he became state tax commissioner. In most elections, he's managed more than 60 percent of the vote.

It's true that North Dakota voters are more conservative ideologically than Dorgan himself, but his populist message plays well here. Hoeven can't duplicate it. In fact, Dorgan will make it seem as if Hoeven is on the side of privilege.

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But what's more important is that North Dakota clearly profits from Dorgan's presence in Washington, and Hoeven knows it -- and works with it.

Turning out Dorgan would mean reversing the bedrock axiom of North Dakota politics, which is that voters want all we can get from Washington while giving as little as we can get away with to Bismarck.

The political calculations therefore add up to a difficult race for Hoeven, and a likely defeat. And the first rule of politics is to avoid defeat whenever you can.

Prospects might be better in 2012, when Kent Conrad faces re-election. By that time, Conrad will be even more closely tied to the Obama financial reforms, and Obama will be less popular, so Conrad may be vulnerable. He may also be tired. Unlike Dorgan, Conrad has interests other than politics, and he might want a different career. He's mused about being commissioner of baseball, for example.

Hoeven's hint was well-timed as far as Dorgan is concerned. During June, Dorgan flooded state mailboxes -- the real ones and the cyber kind -- with pleas for contributions.

Nothing opens wallets as effectively as a perceived threat.

A Hoeven candidacy would be a threat to Dorgan. Dorgan is a skittish politician who wants to win, and win big. Earlier, there was speculation that he might forgo a campaign if Hoeven were to be a candidate.

That seems extremely unlikely now, with such an important campaign function as fundraising already under way.

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Just where Republicans would turn if Hoeven weren't the candidate is a great mystery, of course. There's no clear front runner. So, a Hoeven demurral would be equally as interesting as a Hoeven candidacy. The second tier of Republican office holders would be energized, and a handful of Republican luminaries who don't hold office might be induced to run. There could be a lively battle for the nomination, especially because the winner would gain valuable exposure and experience, even in a losing campaign.

Just such a scenario brought Ed Shafer to prominence in North Dakota politics. Shafer had no elective office experience when he ran for the U.S. House in 1990. He was defeated, but two years later, he was elected governor.

In 2012, that office will be up for grabs, regardless of what decision Hoeven makes this year.

Related Topics: MIKE JACOBS
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