SIOUX FALLS | An energetic former South Dakota public utilities commissioner campaigning on making tough choices to tackle the federal debt. A self-described reformer secretary of state seeking to apply business principles to government like she did in overhauling the elections office. An entrepreneur and state senator who headed President Donald Trump's South Dakota campaign mounting an outsider bid in his image.
The three South Dakota Republicans competing in a high-profile race to be their party's congressional candidate are running in a tough race to replace outgoing Rep. Kristi Noem. Former Public Utilities Commission member and top gubernatorial aide Dusty Johnson is running a well-funded campaign as a more traditional conservative, while Secretary of State Shantel Krebs, a past state legislator, and first-term Sen. Neal Tapio have aligned themselves closer to Trump.
They're in the final weeks of the campaign — crossing the state to hold coffee meet and greets, visit small businesses or attend county party events — to win the June 5 Republican primary election. The winner is set to face Democrat Tim Bjorkman, a former judge, and Libertarian George Hendrickson and independent Ronald Wieczorek in November.
Northern State University political science professor Jon Schaff said Johnson is running as a "mainstream conservative Republican," while Krebs has positioned herself as a more conservative alternative and Tapio is running as the "Donald Trump candidate."
Krebs and Tapio are making more overt populist appeals with an overlap in the voters they're trying to court — a slight benefit for Johnson, Schaff said.
"I think all three candidates have an avenue to victory that is plausible," Schaff said. "It just strikes me that Johnson's avenue is the most plausible of the three."
Krebs, secretary of state since 2015, said her life experiences, agricultural and business background and success turning around the "most failing bureaucratic office in state government" qualify her to serve South Dakota in Congress
"We operate at the speed of business, not at the speed of government," Krebs said. "I've proven that it can be done, and President Trump is doing the same thing. I want to go help President Trump deliver those results."
A longtime former state lawmaker who chaired the state Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, Krebs said her priorities are cutting government spending, removing regulations on businesses, including farmers and ranchers, and replacing former President Barack Obama's health care law.
Krebs said she's the "tested government reformer that has actually driven and given results to our taxpayers."
A self-styled "happy warrior," Johnson said he has the political will to make hard decisions in Washington. He has focused on fiscal discipline, proposing changes such as raising the age for Medicare and Social Security eligibility for younger people.
"Many candidates are unwilling to talk about those things because they're scared of the political repercussions, but anybody who's telling you we can balance the budget without tackling spending on those kinds of programs is more interested in getting elected than they are in governing," said Johnson, who was twice elected to the Public Utilities Commission and later served as chief of staff to Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard.
Johnson has also put out a list of 12 proposals — "Dusty's Dozen" — with policies ranging from imposing U.S. House term limits to giving states more flexibility to drug test welfare recipients. Johnson said he's a results-oriented conservative with an independent streak who looks forward to working with the president.
Tapio, a first-term state senator, has been an enthusiastic Trump supporter and served as state campaign director in South Dakota. During this year's state legislative session, he proposed unsuccessful measures to suspend refugee resettlements into South Dakota from countries on "any federal travel ban list" and pressed federal officials to identify the "root cause" of terrorism.
In his January campaign announcement, Tapio said he was answering the call to public service to usher in an American golden age of economic, social and cultural rebirth set in motion by Trump's economic policies.
"People should pay close attention, because we're watching an American comeback of historic proportions in just the first year of the Trump administration," Tapio said in the statement. "I'm asking South Dakotans to help continue the resurgence by sending me to Congress to help this President undo the damage and political sabotage we've been living under for more than 40 years."
Tapio didn't immediately answer a telephone call from The Associated Press or return an email requesting comment about the race.
Johnson leads in the GOP primary money race. He ended March with about $490,000 in the bank, compared to Krebs' below-$400,000 campaign account balance; Tapio has self-funded, trailing with about $96,000 on hand. The next campaign finance filing deadline is May 24.