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South Dakota Races

Senate Outlook for 2008

Can Democrats Take Advantage of the Turf?

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South Dakota

Outlook: Solid Democratic

October 4, 2008 Update:

State senator Joel Dykstra knew he was in for an uphill battle when he challenged popular Senator Tim Johnson who was recovering from a severe brain hemorrhage. But Dykstra has to feel livid that he’s not even getting a fair shake from the Johnson campaign that’s been running as if the election were already over. After promising at least one televised debate, the Johnson campaign has backtracked and declined to participate in any debates whatsoever. Although Johnson is in fine mental health and has returned to the Senate, his speech, the campaign claims, has yet to recover enough to submit to rapid-fire questioning. Understandably, exposing the recovering Johnson to unscripted debates would pose a huge risk to the Johnson campaign which is otherwise guaranteed victory.

Dykstra, however, is right to question whether Johnson is fit to represent South Dakota if he is not fit to debate, but the challenger’s protests have fallen on deaf ears for two reasons. First, Johnson monopolizes the sympathy vote, and if Dykstra raises issues of health, he risks accusations of insensitivity and opportunism. Second, as bluntly stated by Johnson campaign manager Steve Jarding, Dykstra “hasn’t earned [the right to debate Johnson].” In truth, Dykstra is the Republican nominee because the GOP couldn’t find a credible challenger against the ailing incumbent. Dykstra, who has raised little money ($40K cash on hand to Johnson’s $2.7M), made few headlines, and gained no statewide traction, has yet to show he’s in the same political league as Senator Johnson. The Johnson camp has withdrawn from debates because they can, and there’s virtually nothing that Dykstra can do about it. Yes, Dykstra can call foul and claim Johnson’s dodge is unfair, but the truth is that politics, like life, sometimes just ain’t fair.

June 4, 2008 Update:

State Representative Joel Dykstra won yesterday’s Republican primary, and will try to unseat Democratic incumbent Tim Johnson. The goodwill that Johnson garnered by battling back from his near-fatal brain hemorrhage 18 months ago helped boost his fundraising attempts, and he sits with more than $2.5 million in cash on hand as he prepares for November’s general election. Despite the state’s general Republican tendencies (60 percent for Bush in 2004), Johnson should win reelection, and hold this seat for the Democrats.

April 14, 2008 Update:

With no more uncertainty as to the health or return of Democratic incumbent Tim Johnson, this seat should be a solid Democratic hold in 2008. After his December 2006 brain hemorrhage, it was unclear whether or not Johnson would regain anything resembling full health, much less return to the Senate. But less than a year later, he was able to return to the floor of the Senate, and has resumed his full duties as a Senator. State Republicans were unable to use the period of uncertainty to secure a top-notch candidate to challenge Johnson, leaving them in a dismal spot now that he’s returned. Johnson is enjoying approval ratings near 70 percent, and has more than $2 million more cash on hand than his closest challenger. Having fought his way through two remarkably close elections in 1996 and 2002, Johnson should win by a more comfortable margin this time around.


Incumbent Democratic Senator Tim Johnson has two big mountains to climb going into 2008: recovering from his December brain hemorrhage and protecting his Senate seat next November. Johnson has regained much of his speech, albeit at a slower pace, and some of his mobility, intending to return to his D.C. Senate office sometime in the fall. Though associates have assured the media of a complete recovery, uncertainty still lingers as to whether Johnson will run for reelection and in what condition he would do so. At the moment, however, every indication is that Johnson will run for reelection and if that is the case, then he would be the likely favorite to hold on to the seat.

Both sides, however, are still drawing up contingency plans in the event of a competitive 2008 race without the ailing Senator. In Johnson’s absence, the Senate Democratic caucus has raised more than $660K in the second quarter and $2.9M for the election cycle, leaving Johnson with $1.8M cash on hand. Should Johnson, for whatever reason, decline to run in 2008, the state’s Democratic at-large representative, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, would likely step in to provide a top-tier replacement with statewide electoral credentials.

South Dakota Republicans are also preparing for all contingencies of the 2008 race. As of yet, candidate posturing and campaigning has been minimal out of respect for Senator Johnson’s health. Only one candidate, state representative Joel Dykstra, has announced his intention to challenge the incumbent, and if Johnson stays in the race, top-tier politicos will likely pass on the seat.

However, should Johnson appear physically incapable of effective campaigning or serving in the Senate, or, more importantly, should he withdraw from the race, a GOP heavyweight like Governor Mike Rounds may be enticed into contesting the Senate seat in this mostly conservative state. As for now, both sides are holding their breath, but with Johnson looking likely to run again, even the best laid plans may be for naught.


Tim Johnson (I) – Democrat – current Senator

Joel Dykstra – Republican – state representative