WASHINGTON – News of Sen. Tim Johnson’s emergency brain surgery rocked an otherwise politically quiet Washington last week. But his fellow South Dakotans saw it as the latest in a remarkable series of political twists that seem far out of proportion to the state’s tiny populace.
Over the past four years, South Dakota hosted two of the nation’s hottest Senate races, with a combined price tag of $36 million; saw a former governor resign his U.S. House seat after killing a man in a traffic accident; and rejected a wide-reaching ban on abortions that drew national attention.
Now South Dakotans are following news of Johnson’s recovery from surgery in Washington to correct a congenital tangle of blood vessels in his brain.
Johnson, 59, a Democrat, remains in critical but stable condition, his office said in a statement. He “will be in the hospital until brain swelling goes down,” the statement said, and he is likely to need physical therapy for “weakness on his right side.”
“You’d never think you’d go through this in less than a decade’s time,” said David Kranz, a political reporter and columnist for the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. “You could write a heck of a book.”
In many ways, Johnson’s quiet persona befits the state he has represented in the House and Senate since 1987. A sprawling, rural place, its residents tend to be sober and serious about their politics, often knowing top candidates personally or by family connections, and calling them by their first names.
South Dakota is reliably Republican at the presidential level – President Bush won 60 percent of the vote in 2004 – but its overall political philosophy is less easily typecast. Johnson has repeatedly won statewide elections, and the state’s sole House member, Stephanie Herseth, also is a Democrat. But Republicans control the Legislature, and GOP Gov. Mike Rounds would be in a position to swing the U.S. Senate back to his party’s control if Johnson should resign his seat in the next few weeks.
Johnson has willingly spent most of his career in the shadow of former Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle. The strategy brings him modest fame in Washington but helps him present himself to voters as a moderate, bipartisan-leaning official. Republican John Thune was unable to persuade South Dakotans that Johnson was out of step with them four years ago, but two years later he ousted Daschle with a similar argument.
South Dakota’s unlikely run to the center stage of national politics began in 2002.
Thune, a former high school basketball star, decided after three House terms to run for governor. He appeared solidly on track until President Bush stepped in – arguing that for the good of the party, Thune should challenge Johnson in hopes of gaining a GOP Senate seat. He did, losing by the narrowest margin of any Senate race that year.
Meanwhile, former governor William Janklow, a Republican, decided to run to replace Thune in the House. A popular four-term executive, Janklow faced a surprisingly strong challenge from Herseth, a first-time candidate with a famous last name. Her father, Lars, was a longtime state legislator, while her grandfather had been a governor and her grandmother was secretary of state. Janklow won with 53 percent of the vote.
But eight months into his term, Janklow, who had a reputation for speeding, ran a stop sign in his home state and killed a motorcyclist. Convicted of felony manslaughter, he resigned from the House in December 2003.
A June 2004 special election was called to fill the vacancy, and Herseth was again the Democratic nominee. The race drew national attention as a likely predictor of the 2004 general election, and Herseth became a national figure when she narrowly defeated state Sen. Larry Diedrich.
Amid the Janklow-Herseth hullabaloo came news that Daschle, then the Senate’s Democratic leader, had decided to forgo a fourth term to try for president. The Argus Leader ran a banner headline that screamed “He’s Running” – only to see Daschle back away hours later and commit to seeking re-election to the Senate.
The bid turned turbulent when Thune decided to try again for Senate, risking a second straight loss that might have ended his political career. The race became the most expensive in South Dakota history. In a small-market state where $100,000 buys a lot of TV time, Daschle spent $20 million – $26.50 for every resident – while Thune dished out an equally jaw-dropping $15 million. Thune narrowly won, marking the first time a Senate leader had been defeated for re-election since 1952.
Robert Burns, head of the political science department at South Dakota State University, said, in a feat of understatement, that voters became “a little campaign weary” after the 2004 election.
But there was more to come. Although 2006 featured easy re-elections for Herseth and Rounds, a measure to repeal a law banning almost all abortions was put on the ballot by abortion-rights supporters. The campaign drew national attention and cash, and the repeal referendum passed with 55 percent of the vote.
“Some days you say, ‘Will it ever quit?’ ” Kranz mused about the go-go nature of his state’s politics.
But Johnson’s illness, and its potential political ramifications, are placing a spotlight on South Dakota. Again.