It’s not that Hoeven is against appearing with White House officials. He flew to North Dakota on Air Force One with President Bush after Bush gave the State of the Union address. He showed up with Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns at a recent Republican dinner. And he’s scheduled to be with Johanns when he returns to the state in April.
The problem with Snow, Democrats in North Dakota and Washington say, is that he’s talking about the one issue Hoeven, who is considering a challenge to Sen. Kent Conrad (D) next year, would rather not talk about: revamping the nation’s retirement program in a state filled with retirees.
“I think that sending him in here is harmful to the Republicans,” said David Strauss, chairman of the North Dakota Democratic Party, referring to Snow. “I don’t think promoting the Bush privatization scheme has much positive political impact.”
A Democratic aide said that touting private accounts in North Dakota — which, according to Strauss, has nearly 150,000 people over 55 and 114,000 Social Security recipients — is “bad politics.”
Republicans avoided delving deeply into the political implications of Snow’s trip.
Jason Stverak, executive director of the North Dakota Republican Party, said nothing should be read into the governor’s decision to skip a breakfast roundtable discussion with the secretary at the University of Mary, in Bismarck, and, after that, a government class at Bismarck High School.
What Hoeven has said is that “I am focused on the legislature and my agenda, and that’s where his focus is,” Stverak said. “The governor is going to be up at the state Capitol.”
The governor has been trying to coax the Republican-controlled state Legislature into spending more on teacher salaries, among other issues. The Legislature will be in session until at least mid-April.
Hoeven spokesman Don Larson said that the governor actually planned to be in Washington during the secretary’s trip and that the trip was, for the most part, being organized by the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB).
William Butcher, the state director of the NFIB’s North Dakota branch, said that the roundtable discussion would target people in business and that the only politicians who had been invited sit on the NFIB’s leadership council.
Republicans in Washington have said privately that their only hope of beating Conrad, in his fourth term, is Hoeven, who recently won his second term as governor with more than 70 percent of the vote.
These Republicans add that North Dakota should be a ripe target, given that the state strongly backed Bush in 2000 and 2004. Also, many in the GOP have said that they feel empowered by last year’s defeat of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) in neighboring South Dakota.
But Democrats — and some Republicans — have been quick to note that Conrad is a fierce campaigner. While Republicans insist that the senator’s party is out of step with “North Dakota values,” they concede that he has given voters few reasons to fire him.
Farmers, among the state’s biggest and most powerful constituencies, have generally praised both Hoeven’s and Conrad’s efforts to protect cattle ranchers from Canadian beef and to help the state’s thousands of corn, wheat and soybean farmers, among others.
Sean Neary, a spokesman for Conrad, did not return messages seeking comment about Snow’s trip. It was unknown if the senator plans to join the secretary while Snow is in North Dakota.
Ken Karls, chairman of the state Republican Party, said that the Snow trip was clearly focused on Social Security but that it was also meant to give Hoeven a bit more encouragement to run against Conrad. Stverak added that the administration would like to send a signal to North Dakota’s three federal officeholders, all Democrats.
“It is an attempt to show to our all-Democrat congressional delegation that there is strong support for President Bush for advancing his agenda,” Stverak said.
For now, however, it’s unclear if Hoeven supports a central provision of that agenda. Larson said the governor “feels that Social Security has to be addressed and strengthened for our citizens in the future.” On the question of private accounts, the cornerstone of the Bush plan, Larson would only say that Hoeven has an open mind.