Monday, August 20, 2007

The Johnson next door

While Democratic knives are being sharpened in Montana in anticipation of going after GOP Sec. State Brad Johnson, a much bigger race involving a Johnson is shaping up to the east.

This is, of course, the one for the Senate seat in South Dakota currently held by Tim Johnson. No-one knows for sure what Johnson's exact health status is after his stroke earlier this year. There is talk of him returning to the Senate chambers -- but this only comes from the political types, and not from his close family or from physicians.

Since he has made no public appearances, and since no physicians have been making statements pronouncing him fit and hale and ready to run for re-election, we can only assume that he is far from ready for either service or campaigning.

Writing in the Rapid City Journal last week, Bob Ellis (who is apparently one of the Journal's regular local citizen-columnists) had this to say in an editorial:

Some Democrats had a meltdown last week over the announcement that Republicans were going to get their South Dakota U.S. Senate campaign under way.

Frankly, the reaction of many people to the indignant Democratic protest was, “Huh?”

The political tone during these eight months since Senator Tim Johnson was stricken by a brain hemorrhage has been very subdued and nonpartisan. Expressions of sympathy have gone out from all quarters, regardless of party affiliation.

But a couple of weeks ago National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign, R-Nev., said the GOP wasn’t going to wait any longer to start the campaign to capture the seat for their party next year.

Johnson spokeswoman Julianne Fisher wasted no time going from zero to attack-mode, calling Republicans “hit men” and denouncing Ensign’s statement as a “classless attack by a desperate chairman.”

This is pretty amusing, given that Democratic attacks on Barbara Cubin have hardly lessened in this neck of the woods, in spite of her own family tragedy that has made it difficult for her to serve. Quite the contrary -- her absence from the House on so many votes is something that her Democratic opponents seem eager to highlight.

But back to Johnson. The effrontery of Democrats has been breathtaking, since, as Ellis notes:

While Republicans have waited these eight months, Johnson’s allies have raised about $1.3 million for his re-election campaign, with a great deal of it coming from out of state.

It doesn’t seem reasonable to expect Republicans to continue sitting on their hands while Johnson’s friends carry on preparations for battle.

Yes, you heard that right. Democrats are actively raising cash to defend Johnson's seat, but call Republicans "hit men" for taking steps to field and raise money for a candidate for the seat.

Democrats have certainly been waiting for Johnson's recovery, and all decent human beings have been hoping for it all along (even browsing the more extreme Republican web-gatherings, MH has seen nothing but well-wishes for Johnson from the beginning.) But Johnson either will or will not be ready to campaign and to serve.

The hysterical Democratic reaction to the GOP plans to (gasp) field a candidate for a Senatorial election (!), even though Democrats have raised over a million bucks for the race, showed their hand regarding their strategy more than perhaps they might, upon reflection, have wanted.

If Johnson runs for the seat, it is obviously to Democratic advantage to keep the campaign from beginning for as long as possible -- after all, Johnson has the incumbency (running for his third term,) and has high name recognition. The longer the Dems can keep a Republican from starting to work and starting to raise money, they better off they will be.

More cynical observers (MH among them) believe that Dems have long since decided that Johnson will not run for the seat. They will drag out the sympathy of silence as long as they can, continue to raise money for the race, and then announce Johnson's reluctant retirement and use the money to run either Rep. Stephanie Herseth, who won re-election to her House seat by a wide margin in the last cycle... or they will run Tom Daschle, if they can pry him out of his lucrative lobbying job.

Either of these candidates would obviously be formidable, having instant name-recognition and deep field organizations.

Daschle would actually be the logical candidate, since he only narrowly lost to John Thune in 2004 -- while running Herseth would risk losing the House seat, since Democrats have no-one else of her caliber on the bench to jump into that race.

Regardless of whether the Dems run Johnson, Herseth, or Daschle, the longer they can keep any Republican out of the arena, the more things will be to their advantage.

They have the most powerful news outlet in the state (the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader) at their disposal, so in a short campaign, that gives Democrats an additional advantage.

Much depends on the GOP candidate -- if Gov. Mike Rounds, who won both of his elections handily, runs for Johnson's seat, he will be a formidable candidate, and his entry would temper any advantage Democrats gain by stringing things out, because his own name-recognition and popularity are strong. Even a healthy Tim Johnson would probably lose to Rounds, and would have a tough race against any reasonably strong Republican -- in no small part because of the odor that still surrounds his highly questionable razor-thin win in 2002.

So ironically, Johnson's illness may actually work to his party's advantage if it gets Daschle or even Herseth into the race.

Montana Republicans have good ties with the SD GOP, given that both Conrad Burns and Denny Rehberg helped where they could in John Thune's recent Senate campaigns. We will be watching this one with great interest as well.

Addendum: According to the South Dakota political blog, South Dakota Politics (which we should have checked prior to posting,) Johnson is scheduled to make a public appearance on August 28 in Sioux Falls. It takes a while for news to drift west.

Ken Blanchard writes that this appearance is a necessary response to the concerns many South Dakotans have about Johnson's ability to function as a public servant.

Blanchard concludes:

...Republicans in South Dakota, and elsewhere, have been more than civil and compassionate throughout Senator Johnson's illness. But there is, after all, an election approaching. Does the Senator's illness forbid the Republicans from fielding an opposing campaign?

That, I think, is what my Democratic colleagues are hoping. But hiding behind a wounded man is no more noble than kicking him. Let Senator Johnson tell us when he can return to duty, and whether he intends to run again. That is enough for me.

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