Oil boom has GOP governor coasting to Senate

Correction appended.

North Dakota's U.S. Senate campaign is being waged against a unique economic backdrop.

While other states struggle with high unemployment and sluggish economic growth, North Dakota is enjoying a healthy influx of cash and jobs generated by its oil patch. Its unemployment rate, 3.7 percent last month, is the nation's lowest, and there is a $1 billion surplus in the state's coffers.

All of that plays in favor of Republican Gov. John Hoeven's bid to replace retiring Sen. Byron Dorgan (D).

"He's a popular figure in the state. He's benefited from the oil boom and the high price of commodities," said Mark Jendrysik, chairman of the political science department at the University of North Dakota, regarding Hoeven. "He's got on his side the fact that he can say, 'I didn't screw things up.'"

Polls show Hoeven, who has been in office for 10 years and is the nation's longest-serving current governor, favored by healthy margins to win his state's Senate election next week against Democratic state Sen. Tracy Potter. A Hoeven victory would give North Dakota its first Republican senator since Mark Andrews in 1987.

Hoeven's win would also give the state's booming oil and gas industry an adamant advocate in Washington. The Bakken formation, underlying much of the western part of the state, is estimated to hold some 4 billion barrels of recoverable crude and has turned the state into an energy-producing powerhouse in recent years.

"Governor Hoeven has been a tremendous advocate for energy development in North Dakota, and it's exciting to have someone like him head to Washington," said Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council. "He can bring the success from North Dakota's diverse energy development to Washington on a national scene."

That effort will likely be buoyed by Senate Republican leadership's promise that Hoeven will be granted plum assignments on the Energy and Natural Resources and Appropriations committees.

"North Dakota's not going to lose any clout the day John Hoeven is sworn in," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in January during a campaign stump for Hoeven in Fargo.

Dorgan, has held senior positions on those committees during his 18-year stint in the Senate. The state's senior senator, Democrat Kent Conrad, is chairman of the Budget Committee.


"Senator Dorgan has vast experience in the Senate and seniority on key issues, but Governor Hoeven really brings a business mind-set to the table in governing," Ness said.

To protect the business interests of oil and gas and other traditional energy industries, Hoeven has been staunchly opposed to federal regulation on climate and energy issues. He has pushed back against federal regulation of greenhouse gas emissions and hydraulic fracturing, a controversial oil and gas production technique.

Hoeven told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee last summer that a national cap-and-trade climate policy would halt North Dakota power companies' research and implementation into "clean coal" technologies.

"Each and every source of energy has some drawbacks, traditional and renewable," Hoeven said. "We have to be careful in energy policy about picking winners and losers, and instead incentivize states, this country, to develop all of our energy resources and do so in environmentally sound ways."

And this summer, after meeting with officials from U.S. EPA, the Hoeven administration said that federal regulation of the hydraulic fracturing drilling technique would stifle oil development in the state.

"He's very pro-energy," said Wayde Schafer, North Dakota's regional representative for the Sierra Club. "I think that he will be more supportive of traditional energy sources and will be very pro-development of fossil fuels and has more of a pro-business rather than a pro-environment stand."

Supporting renewable power

But Hoeven has not been silent on issues surrounding renewables or alternative sources of energy.

"Nobody running for state office in North Dakota is going to denigrate wind power," Jendrysik said. "We're the Saudi Arabia of wind."

As governor, Hoeven has worked to ramp up development of the wind industry, including a push for development of new transmission lines and for stronger tax incentives for renewable industries -- all while maintaining support for traditional energy industries.

"By leveraging our enormous potential for both renewable and traditional energy resources, we can truly make North Dakota a powerhouse for America," Hoeven said on his website.

A campaign ad shows him touting his state's comprehensive energy plan. "In our state, we've implemented a comprehensive energy plan ... and it's made us a leader in energy development," he says in the ad. "We need the same approach in Washington."

But Hoeven is not pushing for stronger renewable development because he is overly concerned about climate change. In fact, he has raised questions about the causes behind the phenomenon.

"I agree we need to address it," he said during the Senate hearing last year. "I think there are different opinions as to what causes it" (ClimateWire, July 22, 2009).

His position on climate change irritates environmentalists.

"I know that he is concerned more with the economic impacts of mitigating climate change than he is with actually taking care of the problem," said Sierra Club's Schafer. "That's a pretty firm stand of his that he feels correcting the climate change would have an economic impact and therefore he hasn't supported climate legislation to fix the problem."

But while he might stand with Republicans on climate issues, Hoeven -- a banker who had never held political office before being elected governor in 2000 -- may not hew to party lines in the Senate. In fact, he is a former Democrat who switched parties just four years before being elected governor.

He has supported a number of Democratic causes as governor, primarily dealing with education and health issues. And he has pledged to work with Democrats to ensure that Congress helps North Dakota.

"I think we've got to find ways to address the challenges facing our country and that does mean working together in a bipartisan way," he told the Bismarck Tribune in a recent interview. "I bring my views, principles as a Republican, but my job is to do the very best I can for the people of North Dakota and the people of this country."

Mustache contest

With polls showing him comfortably ahead in the Senate race, Hoeven's toughest contest this year might be in the Robert Goulet Memorial Mustached American of the Year, an award named for the late singer and actor. Hoeven has been nominated by the American Mustache Institute.

Some expected Hoeven might shave the mustache he has sported for nearly 30 years when he first announced his campaign for the Senate in January. While a few governors and congressmen have facial hair, Democrat Roland Burris of Illinois is the only member of the Senate who wears a mustache. Burris, who was appointed by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich to fill President Obama's seat in 2008, will leave the Senate in January.

Hoeven is competing against 18 other finalists in the mustache competition to choose the person who best represents the mustachioed Americans. The contest will wrap up in early December.

Correction: Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) is chairman of the Budget Committee; a previous version incorrectly stated that he chaired the Finance Committee.

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