U.S. House candidate Dusty Johnson made a visit to West River South Dakota last week to meet with potential voters and also spend time at a Republican youth summer camp he helps organize in the Black Hills.
Johnson is seeking the Republican nomination for South Dakota's lone seat in the House of Representatives; he and others in the 2018 race are vying to replace U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, who is running for governor of South Dakota.
Before his travels to Belle Fourche and Hot Springs last week, and before he whacked a rattlesnake to death at the youth camp, he stopped into the Rapid City Journal offices to meet with the newspaper's editorial board.
Afterward, Johnson, 40, was asked to sit down for a recorded interview. His answers, published here, form the latest installment of the Journal's ongoing Newsmaker 5Q segment, with a sixth bonus question thrown in.
Q: What are you hearing most from potential voters on the trail?
A: Oh, I guess probably two issues. I mean, people really are talking about the drought. Almost every conversation addresses that. Now, I would say they understand that it's pretty limited what the federal government can do for that. I mean, President Trump can't make it rain, and I think our delegation has done a pretty good job of — a very good job — of turning the levers in the relatively modest ways in which our government can help. But ranchers and row-crop folks don't, they don't need a lot. They understand that government's not going to make them whole, that these sort of weather tragedies are going to extract a toll from them. And so they're not coming to me saying, "I need a bailout," but they really do appreciate the fact that CRPs have been opened up and that there's a forager's program. It is evident that our delegation cares and I think that matters to people.
Now, the issue that people are bringing up that our government does have a lot more impact on is the general dysfunction. I mean, I'm an optimist, so while I acknowledge that D.C. can work a lot better, I do understand ... we can't give up, right? We gotta be willing to run in and we gotta be willing to be part of the solution, and I think health care's a pretty good example. Things are really, really messy, but the Republicans keep moving the issue along and maybe that means that at the end of the day we'll have a policy that we can get behind.
Q: So, where do you see this race going and what kind of campaign do you want to run?
A: Oh, competition's good, right. Choices are good for voters. I was a high school track athlete. I wasn't particularly good, and I really like running, but I liked the competition. And knowing that Matt Althoff, a great quarter-miler was going to be kicking my butt at track meets meant that I was gonna work that much harder to really get out and push myself a little bit. So I love a competition, and again, I think it's good for voters. A worse thing for a voter is walking into the ballot booth and not having a choice, not being able to have their say. The bosses should be in control of our government and voting's a pretty powerful way to exercise that authority. We're gonna run hard. I mean, I have a day job that does not allow me to campaign full-time. I work in the private sector, I work hard. I got a business unit that I run. Things are going really well there. But you do have to be willing to interview with the bosses. You are not gonna be able to interview for a job over TV commercials.
And everybody always wants to focus, focus on fundraising, and fundraising's going really well for us. We're ahead in the money game, but I am not gonna win this race on television. I'm not gonna win it even in newspaper ads, as horrifying as that might be for you to hear. This race is going to be won in the trenches, talking to real people, and having them put a finger in my chest when I've earned it and having them give me an atta-boy when I've earned it.
Q: In your initial visit to Rapid as a candidate, you talked about doing away with the cynicism in elections and government. Can that approach really work?
A: It does seem like in the last few years, voters have been interested, nationally, in people who are angry. Candidates who are angry, and who yell and who call names. And that's not who I am. I mean, I am a fighter and I know that South Dakota's gotta have a great representative. I know that we need our values in Washington D.C. I will do a great job of that, but I am not going to hurl insults at people in the media or people on my side of the aisle or people on the other side of the aisle. I really do believe that constructive governance is about building bridges. Politics is about addition and multiplication. It is not about subtraction and division. And I think that that over the long haul is going to make me a lot more effective.
Q: What's your position on health care reform?
A: Yeah, I think there is too much federal government intervention in health care and I would like to see a lot more flexibility given to the states so they can design a system that works for them. I think that's a way to get more of the citizens engaged. If the people of Tennessee can be, or the people of Ohio or the people of South Dakota can be a part of designing a system that works for them, then I think that's a good thing. And Tennessee will design a little different system than South Dakota. But we will learn from both of those different approaches.
Now, that is what the founders envisioned. I mean, they like the idea of these states being laboratories of democracy. Where different values from across the country would be able to be put into place and policies that were a little different. And if we really are a country as polarized as we think we are, if California really has nothing in common with South Dakota, why would we try to force a one-size-fits-all answer from the federal government? To the extent that either South Dakota or California would be living under a system that is not in alignment with their values. So, I'm not a big fan of the Republican plan. I'm certainly not a big fan of Obamacare. I'd like to have a plan that does even more to empower states, explore the space and try to find solutions.
Q: What's your take on our president? I mean, how do you feel about the way he behaves, and where he's taking the country?
A: Yeah, I still have some optimism that the president is gonna be able to get some big things done. He's not beholden to traditional political interests, which may allow us to get some things done that we couldn't get done with any other president.
I can't defend his personal behavior. There are times when I think he is too easily distracted, there are times when I think he is too thin-skinned. There are times when he is meaner than he needs to be. But, he's our president, and if we are going to get big things done in this country, it's going to have to be with him and it's probably going to be because of his leadership. And so I'm optimistic that he could still be a part of the solution.
Q: Here's a chance to make your election pitch to voters. What do you want to say to the people of South Dakota?
A: Yeah, there might be a thousand people across this country running for the House of Representatives this year, I don't really know. But I don't think most of them have an opportunity to be relevant. Most members of the House, it is explained to me, sort of go in and hit the green button when they're told to hit the green button and hit the red button when they're told to hit the red button. And I'm not gonna be anybody's foot soldier in Washington D.C.
I think I've got the know-how and the work ethic to be someone who can be a part of the conversation. Who can fight for South Dakota values. We will have someone from California who will articulate the liberal view. We don't need somebody from South Dakota to articulate that view. California will bring that to the table. And I like the fact that we've got a diversity of opinions in D.C., but what South Dakota needs is someone who is articulate, hardworking, has know-how and shares our values so that that South Dakota vision can be at the table, and so that we can send more power back to families and to business and communities and states. Because I think that's where the real value comes from.