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Port: It's a very real possibility that Sen. John Hoeven could skip the NDGOP state convention

I don't know if Hoeven will opt out of the state convention, but I do know it's on the table for this campaign, and that's astounding given Hoeven's electoral track record in our state.

john_hoeven.jpeg
U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., speaks at a news conference in Bismarck in March 2020.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
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MINOT, N.D. — I want to preface this column with a disclaimer: I'm not saying this will happen. I'm saying this is a very real possibility, and even the fact that it's a possibility is astounding.

Sen. John Hoeven may skip the North Dakota Republican Party's state convention — ironically branded as "United as One" — which is scheduled for April 1-2.

I don't know that a decision has been made — and to be perfectly clear, the Hoeven people aren't talking to me about campaign strategy — but my understanding is that a decision will be made in the next week or so, after conventions in the Bismarck and Fargo areas are completed.

Hoeven is, arguably, to this point in his career, the most successful politician North Dakota has ever seen. In the last 20 years, he hasn't garnered less than 70% on the statewide ballot. This isn't a candidate you'd think would have anything to fear in any political venue.

And yet.

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We know there is a faction of angry activists, motivated in many ways by Trump's brand of aspersive populism, who have infiltrated the NDGOP's convention process and turned into something which produces candidates who are out of step with what the broader North Dakota electorate wants.

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In 2012, the NDGOP convention process endorsed Brian Kalk for Congress, but Kevin Cramer won decisively on the June primary ballot.

In 2016, the convention process endorsed Wayne Stenehjem in the gubernatorial race, with Rick Becker, Hoeven's current opponent, making a strong second-place finish and Doug Burgum taking a distant third. But it was Burgum who won on the statewide ballot by 21 percentage points.

The larger electorate obviously has very different views of candidates than the relatively small number of people who attend the NDGOP's conventions.

In this election cycle, Becker has been very effective at getting his people to local district conventions where they're chosen as delegates to the NDGOP's state convention.

Hoeven has, too, but based on surveys of delegates, it's closer than anyone in the Hoeven camp can be comfortable with, and there have been some ugly and disconcerting incidents at those local events.

In District 8, for instance, Mikey Hoeven, the senator's wife who was first lady of the state while he served as governor, was booed while delivering a speech for her husband.

In District 3, in Minot, which is Hoeven's hometown, his daughter Marcela wasn't chosen as a delegate to the state convention.

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These are anecdotes and not terribly meaningful on their own — the senator's daughter isn't entitled to a delegate seat, and boorish behavior in American politics in 2022 is a given if not excusable — but they do add some color to the stark reality of what's happening.

Rick Becker campaign announcement
State Rep. Rick Becker is seen here in a campaign video announcing his bid for the U.S. Senate.
Screen capture from YouTube

The reality of how the convention process works, and who is showing up to those conventions, is at odds with goal of selecting serious-minded candidates with credible track records.

Obviously, the pro-Becker delegates to the state convention would argue that he is just such a candidate, but if this race goes to the June primary, which seems likely, it will give Hoeven the opportunity to expose some very real problems.

Becker doesn't support the crop insurance programs that thousands of North Dakota farm families rely on.

He doesn't support the flood insurance programs that have been a lifeline to families in places like Minot, Bismarck, and Fargo.

Socially conservative Republicans might be chagrined to learn that Becker has a spotty track record on the abortion issue. His gubernatorial campaign in 2016 included a walk-back of his previous votes on abortion bills in the Legislature.

Those issues would be effective for Hoeven in a primary campaign, and he'll have far more resources to make those points than Becker will have to rebut them, but in the hothouse environs of the convention process the outcome of which is dictated in no small part by activists intent on endorsing anyone perceived as an "outsider" standing up to the "establishment"?

Issues matter less in that process, and that's the problem the NDGOP has been grappling with. Remember, the party took a vote on whether to even hold a state endorsing convention before the June primary . They party's state committee ultimately chose not to do that, for now, but if Hoeven skips this state convention?

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Expect support for doing away with the endorsing conventions to grow.

I don't know if Hoeven will opt out of the state convention, but I do know it's on the table for this campaign, and that's astounding given Hoeven's electoral track record in our state.

Here's a discussion question to conclude the column: If Hoeven opts out of the convention, what position does that put the other Republican statewide candidates in? Would Hoeven reach out to them to see if they'll join him?

Would they, if he did?

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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