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U.S. House candidates

A hot microphone delayed the start of Wednesday night's U.S. House Republican candidate forum at the Best Western. State Senator Neal Tapio of Watertown, who branded himself a "political outsider," recoiled at the feedback and joked, "Sometimes hearing myself is scary, as well."

Then former public utilities commissioner Dusty Johnson said, "Well, thanks for those comments, Neal," to laughter from the crowd of around 100.

It was about the last time the candidates — including Secretary of State Shantel Krebs — directly engaged until the night's end. But they really didn't need to, as agreement abounded on the host of questions from deficits to trade to work requirements for welfare chosen by the event's organizer, Americans for Prosperity. The group's state director Don Haggar moderated.

The only significant distinctions came on trade. Johnson, who prior to the event told a press pool that he was "quite nervous" on trade tariffs imposed by President Donald Trump, repeated this claim to the gathered crowd.

"We export $4 billion in ag products (from South Dakota). Ninety percent of people in this world live beyond our borders," Johnson said. "Access to these consumers is necessary."

However, Krebs, who touted her own background growing up on a farm near Arlington, says she supports fair and free trade, emphasizing that Trump's tariffs are retaliations against unfair trade practices by the Chinese.

"China steals our intellectual property," Krebs said, recalling a trip she made to China as part of a South Dakota trade delegation in which she spotted reflector tape with a "3N" ("That's 'N' as in Nancy," she told the crowd), rather than "3M" label.

Referencing his role as Trump's statewide campaign director in the 2016 election, Tapio also doubled-down on the president's call to renegotiate big multilateral trade deals, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which Trump pulled America out of in his first year in office), in place of bilateral deals wherein American producers, he says, "can get a better deal."

He also called out the World Trade Organization for a 2015 decision striking down mandatory country-of-origin labels on beef products.

"To support trade for our stock growers," he said, "we have to be tough."

Plenty of agreement was found between the candidates on bringing accountability to Veterans Affairs, cutting spending from federal entitlement programs, and proposed work requirements for welfare recipients.

"Do you know the No. 1 item that welfare recipients get at the grocery store?" Krebs asked the audience. "Pop." 

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Tapio, who noted he worked and lived in Washington, D.C., for U.S. Senator Larry Pressler, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture's headquarters spanned six blocks and has "an entire building for rutabagas."

"I don't believe work is punishment," Johnson said, saying he disagreed with his "well-intentioned friends on the Left" who have pushed back against work requirements for SNAP beneficiaries.  

It wasn't until the candidates' final statement that any direct back-and-forth was visible. After Krebs boasted she was the only candidate on stage with real experience as a business owner (she owned clothing and shoes stores in Sioux Falls), Johnson opened by saying not only does he have business experience (he works for a Mitchell telecommunications company), but so does Tapio.

"And I'm the only candidate up here endorsed by the Koch Brothers," Johnson said, referencing Charles and David Koch, the energy industrialists who largely fund American For Prosperity.

"I wouldn't want Koch Industries to endorse me," Tapio said. "They're pushing amnesty." He went onto list some positions taken by the Kochs and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, such as immigration reform (which he called "amnesty"), as "what's wrong with this country."

Primary election day for the Republican candidates is June 5. Early voting opened in April, but voters must be registered by May 21. The Republican candidate will go on to face the Democratic candidate, former judge Tim Bjorkman, in the November election to succeed South Dakota's lone congressional seat, currently held by Rep. Kristi Noem, who has vacated her seat to run for governor.

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Education reporter