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Port: Could Trump play kingmaker in North Dakota's Senate primary?

Could the former president endorse Rick Becker in his nascent primary battle with incumbent Sen. John Hoeven? And if he did, would it make a difference?

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump stops to talk with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House during his single term in office.
Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
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MINOT, N.D. — Operating on the belief that what North Dakotans want in Washington, D.C., is another preening, ideologically hidebound narcissist, state Rep. Rick Becker has announced a challenge to incumbent Sen. John Hoeven in North Dakota's Republican primary.

MORE FROM ROB PORT
I'm just not seeing a constituency of North Dakota voters that Mund could appeal to that's large enough to lead her to victory. But, again, that's assuming that she's running to win, and not as a way to keep her celebrity alive post-Miss America.

Can Becker win? I don't think so, and I don't know any credible political observer in the state who thinks so, but, hey, we could all be wrong.

That's why we hold the elections.

One potential wild card a lot of people have been talking about since Becker announced is former President Donald Trump.

Could he get involved in the race, elevating with his political celebrity Becker's challenge from a wish-casting exercise in ego to something more credible?

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Rick Becker
Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, looks at the tally board Feb. 21, 2017 while lawmakers vote during the 2017 North Dakota Legislature.
Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune

To answer that question, I think we have to consider first whether Hoeven is the sort of candidate Trump would want to take on. I'm not sure he is. Trump is well-known to be obsessed with the endless brawling on cable news, and Hoeven doesn't have a presence in that milieu.

He's quiet. Unassuming. A real behind-the-scenes guy.

Most importantly, at least for the topic in front of us, is that Hoeven doesn't have a track record as an outspoken Trump critic.

It's hard for me to believe that Hoeven would be on Trump's radar.

Beyond that, we must consider whether Becker is the sort of candidate Trump would endorse. This is a lower bar, I think. If Trump has it out for Hoeven — and, again, I don't think he does — then the identity of the challenger doesn't matter much to him. I suspect he'd endorse just about any challenger who is taking on someone he dislikes.

Even still, to earn the support of Trump World, one must be deferential to Trump. You have to be like Sen. Ted Cruz and choose to forget that the erstwhile president once claimed your father was involved in the JFK assassination plot and cravenly grovel for his support anyway . You have to be willing to buy into the "big lie" about the 2020 election, and all the other conspiracy-themed accouterments of Trump World.

Becker, once a principled and reasonable lawmaker, has shown in recent years that he has no problem pandering to crazy if it earns him Facebook likes. So maybe he's capable of this.

“There’s a dramatic difference between the approaches of President Trump and myself and several others. But what he tapped into, he tapped into is people’s need for authenticity, for a willingness to buck the status quo,” Becker told our Jeremy Turley this week . “And that’s exactly what I’m tapping into.”

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Bison White House visit Trump Hoeven Stick.jpg
President Donald Trump congratulations NDSU football quarterback Easton Stick and other members of the team during an event at the White House March 4, 2019. Sen. Kevin Cramer, left, and Sen. John Hoeven, right, also attended the event. Special to The Forum

Becker clearly wants the support of Trump voters, but without endorsing Trump's more caustic character traits. That might be good campaign trail triangulation, but Becker would have to shift his tone to something closer to adulation to get a Trump endorsement.

But would Trump even move the needle in this race?

We actually have a recent example of Trump endorsing in a Republican statewide primary election in North Dakota. In May of 2020, Trump, along with hangers-on like pillow hawker and election conspiracy monger Mike Lindell, endorsed Daniel Johnston in the treasurer race against Fargo-area lawmaker Tom Beadle .

It didn't work. Beadle won , decisively, with a more than 52% majority that included a strong showing in Trump-friendly western North Dakota. Beadle got almost 55% in Williams County, 50% in Mountrail County, 51% in Mercer County, and 50% in Dunn County.

If Trump couldn't put Johnston over the top against Beadle, even in North Dakota's oil and coal counties, how could a Trump-Becker alliance expect to beat a man who is arguably the most popular and successful politician in state history?

Hoeven has never been re-elected as governor, or to the U.S. Senate, with less than 70% of the vote. In 2016, the last time he was on the ballot, he got almost 80%.

No disrespect to Beadle, but he doesn't have Hoeven's decades-long track record of electoral success.

Let's look at another data point from the NDGOP's 2020 primary. Michael Coachman, very pro-Trump candidate whose candidacy was promoted by Becker, challenged incumbent Gov. Doug Burgum for the nomination.

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He almost got 11% of the primary vote , which is not strong evidence suggesting that being the Trump candidate can tip a race.

So, in summary, could Trump jump into the Senate primary? Anything is possible, but probably not.

If he did, would he make a difference? Backing Becker against the incumbent might do more to hurt Trump's popularity in North Dakota than it does Hoeven's.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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