This is the second of a three-part series looking at the Republican and Democratic candidates in the 2018 election to replace Rep. Kristi Noem in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Dusty Johnson has all it takes in the photogenics department.
The native South Dakotan, who's vying for the Republican nomination for the state's lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, is a model the boy next door, as huggable as a Paddington Bear and just as endearing. Shrewdly building on that "aw shucks" persona, Johnson's standout claim to qualifying for a place on the November ballot is "I'm an optimist. That's why I'm running for Congress."
Disarmingly genuine, Johnson's campaign will go far on telegenics. As to substance, though, he comes up way short. In fact, it's just about impossible to pin this guy down on where he stands on some of the big issues he'll be contending with should he make it all the way to Congress.
There's probably a lot of calculation in that politically safe approach, but I doubt it will carry him over the top. Johnson's website boasts of his accomplishments as an elected Public Utilities commissioner, though all decisions were made by the Commission, not Johnson himself. Then there's that four-year stint as Gov. Daugaard's chief of staff. Johnson makes the audacious claim that while serving Daugaard he was "overseeing much of state government."
A chief of staff doesn't "oversee" government, and I'd be surprised if Dennis Daugaard would cede the role of government oversight to what is effectively an office manager with advisory roles.
More to the point, considering South Dakota's feeble economic performance during Daugaard's tenure, I wonder if Johnson's position with the Governor's Office is the asset he believes it to be.
As to Johnson's stand on issues that matter now, I don't see much. His interview in the Rapid City Journal last summer was dismissive toward the agricultural sector in this state. Johnson said that "ranchers and row-crop folks don't need a lot" and that "government's not going to make them whole." He completely overlooked the importance of international trade to the state's largest industry and how he would deal with the Trump administration's hostility toward NAFTA and other trade agreements that are uniformly supported by all the major agricultural groups.
On health care, Johnson makes the un-stunning (for a Republican) announcement that he'd "like to have a plan that does even more to empower states." Actually, state empowerment is already a feature of one of one of our largest (to the tune of a half-trillion bucks) health-care programs — Medicaid. Does Johnson know that when Mike Pence was governor of Indiana he devised an Indiana-specific plan to expand Medicaid into his state? And that Gov. Daugaard did the same here but was stymied by a recalcitrant Legislature? States already have the power that Johnson seeks, and it's funded by federal money. He should know that.
Meantime, we have major fights on the 2018 horizon whose outcomes will mean much to South Dakotans. At some point Johnson's positions on things like net neutrality, infrastructure spending, the "wall" and other immigration issues will be flushed out and voters will get a sense of who he is. We'll then find out if the boy next door is capable of being our congressman next year.