No Longer a Target, Johnson Is Cruising

Posted September 15, 2008 at 6:44pm

What’s the difference between a handshake and a wave? If you’re Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), not that much.

In South Dakota, an intimate state that prides itself on retail politics and having a personal relationship with its elected officials, Johnson is not quite the accessible politician he was before suffering a brain aneurysm in late 2006. During a Labor Day parade in Wagner, S.D., Johnson rode on a flatbed trailer with his wife and waved to the crowd, a change from past campaigns when he walked parade routes and shook hands.

But he remains “Tim” to many of his constituents, and he is poised for an easy victory this November over state Rep. Joel Dykstra, a third-tier contender whom the GOP had to settle for after far-better-known candidates declined to run against the ailing Senator. Before suffering the aneurysm, Johnson had been pegged as potentially one of the most vulnerable Senators up for re-election this cycle.

“Tim Johnson has never been known as a show horse,” said one Republican operative and veteran of South Dakota politics. “People just think that Tim Johnson will get things done.”

Johnson returned to the Senate just more than a year ago, after spending nine months away to recover from his illness. Since then, he hasn’t missed a floor vote and has maintained a full schedule of committee hearings in addition to chairing some subcommittee meetings.

Johnson is still undergoing physical therapy as part of his recovery. His speech is halted and laborious; he often uses a wheelchair to get around the Capitol and he otherwise walks with the assistance of a cane.

However, the Johnson campaign noted that the Democrat spent August back home on a 20-city tour while also attending the state fair and various county fairs to meet with constituents. Johnson’s Senate office added that the past 12 months were possibly the most productive of his career, both legislatively and in terms of securing federal money for South Dakota projects.

But Dykstra is fighting back, attempting to gain political traction by using Johnson’s decision not to participate in any campaign debates to suggest that the Democrat is short-changing an electorate that has come to expect a high level of engagement from its candidates and also that Johnson may no longer be up to the job.

On Monday, Dykstra hit South Dakota’s television and radio airwaves with his first ad, a 30-second spot that makes each of those points, albeit subtly.

“The Senator we elect this November will serve until 2015, so I think it’s important the candidates talk about their plans for the future,” Dykstra says as the ad opens, with his family in the background while he looks directly into the camera. “Tim Johnson disagrees. He says his 22 years in Washington tell you all you need to know. He doesn’t need to answer questions.”

Johnson released a prepared statement in early August that said he would forgo debating his challenger in this campaign. He said he planned to do so because his speech was “not yet 100 percent” and in a debate setting might give the impression that he was no longer capable of doing his job.

This reasoning has carried over to Johnson’s campaign ads, which feature South Dakotans giving testimonials as to why the Senator needs to be re-elected. The only time Johnson speaks in his spots is to provide the legally necessary disclaimer that he approved the ads.

Steve Jarding, one of Johnson’s chief campaign strategists, said there has been no fallout from the Senator’s decision to scratch the debates from this fall’s campaign schedule. Jarding said Johnson plans an aggressive campaign schedule beginning in October, or whenever the Senate adjourns for the duration of the political season.

Dykstra claimed in a Monday afternoon telephone interview that Johnson has been absent from the campaign trail. The Republican said the appearances Johnson does make are tightly controlled, with little advance notice given to the news media.

But according to Jarding, that simply is not the case, and he noted that Johnson over the summer recess sat for editorial board meetings with South Dakota’s two largest newspapers.

Jarding said little has changed from past Johnson campaigns beyond the logistical challenges and adjustments involved in ensuring an appearance site is either walkable or can be accessed by the Senator’s wheelchair. Jarding also said Johnson’s appearances last longer, but only because his speech is slower and it takes him more time to answer questions.

“Even with the debate issue,” Jarding said, “most people said — we polled on it — and most people said: ‘That’s OK, we know him.’”

Senate strategists and observers of South Dakota politics took this race out of the competitive column after Republicans failed to recruit a top-tier challenger into the race against Johnson, namely Gov. Mike Rounds and former Lt. Gov. Steve Kirby.

Johnson won his second term in 2002 in a nail-biter over popular Rep. John Thune (R), who was elected to the Senate two years later in a close race that saw him beat then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D). Jarding conceded that this year’s race, and possibly Johnson’s decision to avoid debating, might have been different if the Senator was running against a more formidable Republican.

Denise Ross, who writes about South Dakota politics at HogHouseblog.com, said this Senate race is a bit unusual by Mount Rushmore State standards, noting in particular that it is not characterized by the brutal, hand-to-hand political combat that were emblematic of the Johnson/Thune and Thune/Daschle races.

Dykstra said he would have enough money to get his message out. And he predicted that his ability to reach voters in the personal manner South Dakotans are used to would benefit him down the stretch.

Ross said Johnson’s decision not to debate Dykstra has raised some eyebrows among South Dakota’s voters, and could prove to be a political liability.

But she said Johnson’s record on Capitol Hill — particularly the fact that he is the senior member of his state’s Congressional delegation and has been successful at using his Appropriations Committee slot to bring home federal money for local projects — would ultimately inoculate him from defeat.

“I think [Johnson’s] lead will erode. But I don’t know that it will erode to get a Dykstra win,” Ross said. “If he was running against Gov. Mike Rounds, it would be a completely different race. Dykstra is less well-known; he hasn’t been able to raise money.”