With Rove heading to N.D., GOP hopes Hoeven can be coaxed into Senate race

White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove is planning to travel to North Dakota later this month to rally GOP activists and, Republicans hope, persuade Gov. John Hoeven (R) to challenge Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) next year.
White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove is planning to travel to North Dakota later this month to rally GOP activists and, Republicans hope, persuade Gov. John Hoeven (R) to challenge Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) next year.
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Republicans are encouraging North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven (R) to challenge Sen. Kent Conrad, above, next year.

GOP officials are convinced that Hoeven, who won his second term last year with 71 percent of the vote, is the only Republican in the state who can beat the fourth-term Conrad. The senator won reelection in 2000 with 61 percent and, as of June 30, the end of the second quarter of this year, had nearly $2.7 million in his campaign coffers.

Ken Karls, the state Republican Party chairman, said he was unsure whether Rove would address the Senate race directly when he is expected to speak at the Sept. 24 state party committee meeting in Fargo, N.D.
Karls and Jason Stverak, executive director of the state GOP, were reluctant to discuss at length the Rove visit. Karls said the visit is likely but not yet confirmed; he added that Hurricane Katrina could interfere with the party’s plans.

“I think that’s coming together nicely,” Karls said of the Rove trip.

The White House has been lobbying Hoeven for months to get into the race. This year alone, President Bush has lobbied for Social Security reform in North Dakota and Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, Treasury Secretary John Snow and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales have visited the state.

Sen. Elizabeth Dole, chairwoman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, gave Hoeven a ticket to attend the president’s State of the Union address. Hoeven met with Rove in early June while the governor was in Washington.

The extra attention — state officials say they can’t remember the last time North Dakota played host to so many Washington power brokers — is meant to accentuate Hoeven’s ties to the White House, North Dakota Republicans have said.

The strategy is similar to that employed by the White House in neighboring South Dakota in 2004, when leading Republicans recruited John Thune (R) to challenge successfully Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D).

Conrad appears aware of the parallels between his race and the South Dakota contest. While Republicans slammed Daschle for “obstructing” Bush’s judicial nominees and other agenda items, Conrad has insulated himself from that line of attack.

The North Dakotan recently lavished praise on the president’s nominee to replace deceased Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Judge John Roberts. And Conrad has been one of the few Senate Democrats who has voiced willingness to work with the GOP on Social Security. However, Conrad has said he could not support a plan that contains steep benefit cuts or that borrows heavily to cover the costs of private accounts.

Conrad spokesman Sean Neary said the senator is preparing for his reelection bid, adding that Conrad “led” the fight to keep open North Dakota’s military bases and fought for state priorities in the recent energy and transportation bills. Neary also said the senator would do whatever possible to help the hurricane victims.

Recalling a 1997 flood that destroyed much of Grand Forks, N.D., nestled against the Red River, Neary said: “That’s always in the back of Senator Conrad’s mind.”

Allen Abney, a White House spokesman, and Tracy Schmitt, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, which often handles political events, said they could not confirm Rove’s North Dakota trip. Abney said that he typically is kept abreast of Rove’s schedule on a week-by-week basis.

Rove’s visit would certainly galvanize state Republicans into waging battle against Democrats, state executive committee member Jim Strege said. Whether it would prompt Hoeven to challenge Conrad remains to be seen. “That’s the $64,000 question,” Strege said. “I guess it would be wishful thinking at this point.”

Republican officials have said that Hoeven, given his status as the preeminent Republican in his state and the only potentially viable Senate contender, can take his time to announce his plans. Some Republicans say they don’t expect to know the governor’s final answer until early next year.

The state committee meeting in Fargo will include the 61 voting members of the committee, Stverak said.

Karls said the Rove visit could help raise between $15,000 and $20,000. “That doesn’t sound like much in Washington, D.C., but here it does,” Karls said.

Karls added that the state GOP must counter “outside money” from the Democratic National Committee. Also, he said, Republicans have four non-federal statewide races and scores of state legislative races to consider as they head into 2006.

Republicans in Washington have expressed frustration with Senate candidate recruiting, particularly in red states such as North Dakota, Nebraska and West Virginia where Bush trounced Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last year. Republicans are expected to be dealt another setback today in Rhode Island, when Cranston, R.I., Mayor Stephen Laffey (R) is likely to announce that he will challenge Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) next year in a GOP primary.

Hoeven spokesman Don Canton said the governor planned to attend the fundraiser but did not know if he will meet with Rove privately.