North Dakota Republican John Hoeven, the longest-serving governor in the United States, was the surest of sure bets ever since he announced his plans to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan. In a state that has moved solidly into the GOP column, Hoeven’s approval ratings are above 80 percent, thanks in part to his emphasis on economic policies that have helped North Dakota to thrive during the recession.
Hoeven (HO-ven) was born in Bismarck and grew up in Minot. His father was a banker who in 1969 took over the First Western Bank & Trust of Minot, which became a family business. John Hoeven started working there as a bookkeeper at age 15. He graduated from Dartmouth College and went on to earn an M.B.A. from Northwestern University. In 1981, he returned home to become First Western Bank’s executive vice president.
In 1993, he was chosen to head the state-owned Bank of North Dakota—a creation of the democratic-socialist Non-Partisan League—by a board that included his predecessor as governor, Republican Ed Schafer, and his 2000 Democratic opponent, Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp. Under Hoeven’s stewardship, the bank’s worth rose from $990 million to $1.6 billion, and its loan portfolio increased from $200 million to $1 billion. In 1996, Hoeven considered running as a Democrat against Schafer, but after the governor announced his retirement in October 1999, he decided to remain a Republican.
His 2000 contest for governor against Heitkamp was relatively civil. Hoeven cited his work attracting and retaining local jobs: founding Minot’s Magic Fund, a city sales tax used for business development; and organizing the effort to keep Minot Air Force Base off Congress’ closure list. He called for economic development in the state with an emphasis on the technology industry and on improving education; he pledged more money for teacher training and salaries. He won 55-45 percent.
As governor, Hoeven has used North Dakota’s burgeoning state revenues to fund programs to stimulate more economic development. In his first years, he combined several state agencies into a Department of Commerce. In 2002, he announced an ambitious research and development program, borrowing $50 million to generate $150 million for university projects that would help commercialize new technology. From 2005 to 2007, more than $40 million in state funds and double that amount in private funds were invested in the Center of Excellence in Life Sciences and Advanced Technologies and other new research centers devoted to developing technology.
Much of this was aimed at exploiting North Dakota’s considerable energy resources, including oil, coal, ethanol and other biofuels, wind, and hydrogen. In 2002, Hoeven announced his Empower North Dakota energy plan, aiming to build three new biodiesel plants by 2015 and to have wind supply 10 percent of the state’s electricity by 2015 (up from 5 percent). In 2004, Hoeven was reelected, capturing 71 percent of the vote to former state Sen. Joseph Satrom’s 27 percent. In 2005 and 2007, Hoeven submitted budgets with reductions in local property taxes and big increases in education spending that targeted raising teachers’ salaries.
National Republicans had hoped for years that he would run against one of North Dakota’s two Democratic senators. He opted not to challenge Sen. Kent Conrad in 2006 and, in November 2008, won another term by easily defeating state Sen. Tim Mathern. Before the 2008 election, Hoeven brushed aside speculation that he would run against Dorgan or Rep. Earl Pomeroy in 2010, but did not pledge to serve out his third term. In January he entered the Senate race, criticizing President Obama’s economic agenda and what he called an overly bureaucratic health care overhaul. “Washington’s approach is to put a 2,000-page bill between you and your doctor,” he said.