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Passing the Tea Party test

In an era of conservative ideological fundamentalism, it’s only a matter of time before the Tea Party crowd starts taking a closer look at North Dakota’s Republican governor, John Hoeven, the current favorite to win his state’s open Senate seat this November.

Indeed, Hoeven was once in charge of North Dakota’s socialist — there’s no other word for it — Bank of North Dakota, the only state-owned bank in the country. At the time, in mid-1990, Hoeven began flirting with a political career, and his initial instinct was to do so as a Democrat. In fact, in a 1996 letter to the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party that was recently acquired by the blog North Decoder, Hoeven wrote, “The recent call for me to seek elective office has caused me to reflect on political party affiliation … I have worked closely with and developed great respect for Democratic-NPL Party leaders. I believe the Party supports small business, quality jobs, education and a safety net for those who need it. For these reasons, I am joining the North Dakota-NPL Party.”

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In addition, Hoeven circulated a letter to the editor, titled “I’m a Democrat,” to a number of North Dakota newspapers around that same time. Responding to claims that he’d run as a Republican, Hoeven wrote, “The effort to cast me as a member of the Republican Party is being engineered by partisan people who do not want to see me enter the governor’s race … The effort by overly partisan members of the Republican Party to cast me as one of their own is just that, partisan politics as usual.” His conclusion: “I have decided to join the Democratic-NPL Party because I believe that is the best fit for my views.”

Hoeven didn’t run for governor in 1996, and by 2000, when he did want to run, he realized that his chances would be better as a Republican. Yet that was a political decision, an opportunistic one. Before he made that electoral calculation, he’d made his true feelings known.

As governor, he has made the right conservative noises on some issues, like gay marriage and abortion. Yet on other issues, he’s been decidedly less ideological. He was a big fan of President Barack Obama’s stimulus package, and still features the legislation as the top “highlight” on his official website.

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He’s pushed budget hikes of greater than 25 percent in the last two budget sessions. Criticized for those increases in state spending, Hoeven fired back in an op-ed in The Bismarck Tribune, “As the nation struggles through a severe national recession, most North Dakotans continue to work and raise their standard of living. They do so, in large measure, because of our state’s aggressive economic development efforts in recent years[.]”

Such talk is clearly anathema to the teabagger movement, and there are signs they will step up their opposition to Hoeven’s Senate bid. Tea Party organizers in the state are planning a convention for mid-February, and Hoeven will be in their sights. “There is a lot of unrest about Gov. Hoeven basically being handed the keys to the GOP car, and so I wouldn’t be shocked if there is criticism of him and his spending,” one organizer told the Grand Forks Herald.

Ultimately, Hoeven’s record suggests social conservatism, melded to a more liberal outlook on fiscal issues. As Obama faces a smaller Democratic majority in 2011, Hoeven could likely be one of a tiny group of Republicans willing to reach out across the aisle on economic issues. That may fare well for a dysfunctional Senate, but it’s not what modern conservatives expect from their Republicans.

Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos (www.dailykos.com).