Mustache a misstep for Hoeven?

FARGO -- North Dakota first lady Mikey Hoeven considers her husband a handsome man. But after 27 years of marriage, there's still one part of the governor she hasn't seen: his upper lip.

North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven
North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven announces that he is running for the U.S. Senate on Monday night during a Republican gathering in Bismarck. (Dave Wallis/The Forum)

FARGO -- North Dakota first lady Mikey Hoeven considers her husband a handsome man. But after 27 years of marriage, there's still one part of the governor she hasn't seen: his upper lip.

A campaign for U.S. Senate isn't likely to change that, she said.

"I'm pretty sure he has no intention of shaving his mustache," she said Tuesday, the day after Gov. John Hoeven announced his candidacy. "He's pretty attached to it ... and obviously the mustache is very attached to him."

The gubernatorial lip garnish may seem like a minor issue, but as campaign managers know and history has taught (think Richard Nixon), perception is reality and can mean the difference between a big lead and razor-thin margin.

Consider this: While some House members let their whiskers out to play, no current elected senator sports facial hair. Sen. Roland Burris, D-Ill., wears a mustache, but he was appointed to the seat when Barack Obama became president and is not running for a full term.


"It's all become a matter of debate within a campaign, because you don't see a lot of people in politics with facial hair," said Angela McMillen, executive director of the American Association of Political Consultants.

An exception to rule?

A number of studies over the years have shown that voters perceive candidates with facial hair as less trustworthy than their clean-shaven counterparts, said McMillen and Jeffrey Adler, a political consultant in Long Beach, Calif., for more than 25 years.

Voters "believe that these types of candidates are hiding something, because they're hiding behind their facial hair," Adler said.

So, Hoeven should scrap his crumb-catcher, right?

Not necessarily, McMillen said. Her advice to candidates is "to be true to their own image and their own appearance."

For example, one of her clients wore cowboy boots with his business suits because it was "part of his thing," she said.

"It's about being authentic, and if part of his authentic appearance is a mustache, then leave it on," she said of Hoeven.


Besides, shaving it off now could be perceived as pandering, she said.

"People don't want people like that," she said. "They're looking for leaders. They're not looking for followers."

Adler said Hoeven may be an exception to the facial hair rule.

"Because you've got a smaller population, they're familiar with the guy for many years, and that rule might not hold to a guy who's built his success on an image that he's carefully cultivated," he said.

'That's who he is'

The governor's lip grass has drawn heckles and praise from a variety of online observers in blogs and story comments.

The Los Angeles Times, in a political blog about potential candidates for the seat being left open by Sen. Byron Dorgan, wrote that Hoeven "would bring a much-needed mustache to the Senate."

The American Mustache Institute, in a column titled "The North Dakota Mustache - an endangered species," extols Hoeven's "full, neatly-kept, chevron of hair beneath his nose."


The tongue-in-cheek column describes North Dakota as a "haven" for mustaches, whose founders of Scandinavian and European descent "wore mustaches from the time they could grow them until the time they were buried."

"As with most mustached men in North Dakota, his choice of facial hair implies that he is steady, hard-working, no-nonsense, responsible, and maybe even a little rugged," it says of Hoeven.

North Dakotans don't appear to have an aversion to mustached politicians, whether it be that beloved Rough Rider, President Theodore Roosevelt, with his considerable nose curtains, or former Gov. Ed Schafer, whose two terms before Hoeven have made for 17 years of mouth mops in the governor's office.

If Hoeven needs insight on what it might be like to shed his facial fur, he could consult Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.

Stenehjem had sported a mustache for more than 30 years and through several elections before he lost a bet with his son, Andrew, over the margin of victory in his 2004 re-election and had to shave it.

When Stenehjem got up to deliver his victory speech, his son plopped a can of shaving cream and a razor on the podium.

"And I thought, 'This could be a mathematical error. I'm going to wait until the canvass of the vote comes in,' " he said.

After the shaving, people told Stenehjem he looked younger, so he kept his face whisker-free. It took a while for his wife to get used to it, but he said he doesn't miss the mustache.


Five years later, the public hasn't forgotten.

"I still get comments on whether they prefer me with or without it," he said.

Don Larson, campaign manager for Hoeven's Senate run, said this about the mustache: "Surprisingly enough, it has not come up.

"From our perspective, Mikey would speak for us," he added.

The first lady said there's been talk in past elections about whether her hubby's mustache should go.

"But that's who he is," she said. "As someone running for political office, you've got to be who you are."

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