Johanns heading back to Bismarck

Secretary of Agriculture Mike JohannsMichael (Mike) Owen JohannsMeet the Democratic sleeper candidate gunning for Senate in Nebraska Farmers, tax incentives can ease the pain of a smaller farm bill Lobbying World MORE will return to North Dakota in April for his second trip to the state in as many months.

The stated purpose of the trip is to "listen" to farmers. The unofficial goal, many in the state say, is to nudge Gov. John Hoeven (R) into challenging Sen. Kent Conrad (D), who is up for reelection next year.
Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns will return to North Dakota in April for his second trip to the state in as many months.

The stated purpose of the trip is to "listen" to farmers. The unofficial goal, many in the state say, is to nudge Gov. John Hoeven (R) into challenging Sen. Kent Conrad (D), who is up for reelection next year.

During Hoeven's first, four-year term, then-Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman did not visit the state once, said the governor's spokesman, Don Larson.
Hoeven began his second term in December. Johanns became secretary in January. Since then, North Dakota has become one of his top destinations.

By placing the governor on a stage next to the secretary, the hope is to convince North Dakotans that Hoeven has the administration's ear, a critical line of communication in a state with 30,000 farms.

"I think that all these things can be viewed as a signal of support, to encourage [Hoeven] to strongly consider running for the Senate," North Dakota Farm Bureau President Eric Aasmundstad said.

A Republican official in Washington said Johanns's trip "demonstrates to the people of North Dakota that having a Republican senator at a time when Republicans control the House, Senate and White House is very advantageous to the state."

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) considers Conrad one of the most vulnerable senators up for reelection in 2006 because he is a Democrat in a heavily Republican state. A Republican source indicated that the NRSC had no hand in Johanns's upcoming trip.

Like Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who also faces the voters next year, Conrad comes from a state that has strongly backed President Bush. Democratic Sens. Robert Byrd (W.Va.), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) face similar hurdles in their reelection battles, although Bush won by smaller margins in their states.

Conrad, in his fourth term, trounced his Republican opponent, Duane Sand, in 2000, winning 62 percent of the vote to Sand's 38 percent. The senator also raised far more money than Sand did: $2.7 million compared to Sand's $400,000. A Democratic former aide to Conrad called the senator a fierce campaigner.

Johanns's itinerary includes one stop each in the eastern and western halves of the state, said Ken Karls, chairman of the North Dakota Republican Party.

The details of the trip have not been worked out, Larson said. He added that the governor will travel with Johanns while he is in North Dakota and that if members of the state's congressional delegation, all of whom are Democrats, want to take part, they will be welcome.

Conrad's office issued a statement yesterday saying it is unlikely the senator will be able to be in North Dakota for Johanns's visit because the Senate will be in session.

While Karls downplayed the political implications of the trip, he added that Hoeven had been instrumental in getting Johanns to agree to the trip, scheduled for April 21.

Karls explained that on his most recent trip, last Friday, to attend a GOP Lincoln Day dinner, the secretary did not have the chance to speak with many farmers.
North Dakota farmers have several concerns, Larson said. Topping the list are Canadian beef imports, sugar-trade competitors and disaster relief, which was cut in the budget proposed by Bush.

Aasmundstad said North Dakota must walk a fine line when it comes to trade - opening up foreign markets while protecting farmers at home. "Fifty percent of everything we raise up here has to be exported, so we need markets," he said. "But at the same time, we've got to have a balance so that we don't put ourselves at risk."

Aasmundstad said both Conrad and Hoeven had been good to farmers and had often worked together.

Last week, the Senate adopted a resolution sponsored by Conrad that takes steps to block Agriculture Department plans to reopen the Canadian border to live cattle trade. The resolution passed 52-46 and received bipartisan support.

Conrad also has sought to protect North Dakota's sugar-beet farmers. According to a statement put out by Conrad's office, the state's Red River Valley has a $2 billion sugar-beet industry.

Also, the senator, like Hoeven, opposes including negotiations related to the sugar trade in bilateral agreements such as the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).

In the statement released by his office, Conrad said he is "hopeful that what Secretary Johanns hears [on his trip] regarding the damage that will be done by his farm cuts and his position on 'mad cow' disease - prematurely opening the border with Canada - and the very serious damage CAFTA would do to one of the biggest industries in our state will convince this administration to change course."

Hoeven, who won reelection with 71 percent of the vote, has said he will announce his Senate plans after North Dakota's Legislature wraps up its business in late April. Karls said that he had had private conversations with the governor and that he is focused on getting his agenda passed in the state capital, Bismarck; at the heart of that agenda are pay raises for teachers and economic development plans.

Larson suggested that one of the reasons Johanns planned to visit the state next month was his friendship with Hoeven, dating back to the days when Johanns was governor of Nebraska.

An Agriculture Department spokesman did not return phone calls seeking comment.