In next year’s Senate races, Republicans mostly will play defense — they have few pickup opportunities and may consider themselves very lucky if they break even at the ballot box.
One of their top priorities is South Dakota, where Democratic senator Tim Johnson is up for reelection. Johnson, who suffered a brain hemorrhage in December, has not said whether he will run again. And now, Republicans in South Dakota have finally begun to line up to wage a challenge for the seat in the upper house, whether Johnson’s name is on the ballot or not.
Since Johnson’s episode — technically a stroke onset by an ateriovenous malformation of the brain — little official information has emerged about the exact state of the senator’s health. While his staff releases occasional statements and still photos, actual information about the severity of Johnson’s stroke, or the state of his health today, has never been revealed.
An air of mystery hangs over the race, with Johnson’s health as the central variable in Republicans’ hope for a possible takeover.
“The senator was very much excited in running towards office before this,” says Julianne Fisher, a spokeswoman for Johnson. “He’s hoping to return to work and making that decision.” Fisher declined to say whether the senator has a timeline for such a decision, noting that it would have to come before next year’s April 8 filing deadline.
Jack Billion, the chairman of the Democratic party in South Dakota, says that he expects Johnson to seek reelection. “We’re really in a waiting mode,” Billion says. “Should he decide not to run, we’ve laid out some of the other options,” which he mentioned might include popular congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin.
Johnson was first elected to the Senate in 1996. He was narrowly reelected in 2002, when he defeated Republican John Thune by about 500 votes. (Two years later, Thune was elected to the Senate when he beat former majority leader Tom Daschle.) If Johnson’s health had not come into question, the senator would have been an odds-on favorite for reelection. But now many Republicans are thinking about 2008.
The only announced Republican candidates to have announced at this point are businessman Sam Kephart and State Representative Joel Dykstra.
“I believe that the Republican party needs a spokesman who is capable of representing a broad cross-section of the party,” Dykstra says. He says he approached the NRSC about his candidacy after talking to other potential Republican candidates. “I can’t speak for them,” he says, “but at this point in time, I don’t see any of these people entering the race.”
So far, Dykstra is the only Republican with electoral experience to have entered the race. He expects to be able to raise upwards of $2 million during the full electoral cycle. As for his potential opponent, Dykstra says he is not focused on that right now. “I support Sen. Johnson in his recovery, and I take his staff at face value when they say he’s coming back and will be on the ballot,” he says.
Kephart, who describes himself as an “Eisenhower Republican,” may have the financial resources to orchestrate a successful primary or general election bid, he has built up little support among party activists. “He isn’t really a presence on the statewide scene,” says Powers.
“I’m a different breed of Republican,” Kephart says, touting his “very conservative” stances on the budget and war on terror, but noting his “progressive inclinations” on issues like health care — he says that he supports some sort of system that would be universal, though not entirely funded by the government.
Another favorite among Republicans is Governor Mike Rounds. The White House has courted Rounds aggressively to run for the seat, even inviting the governor and his wife Jean to a private dinner with President Bush.
Rounds is well liked by conservatives. In its fiscal-policy report card of governors, the hard-grading Cato Institute gave him a “B” — the fifth-best score among all governors. The report praised him for maintaining the tax-friendly environment for individuals and businesses in the state. Additionally, he was a vocal proponent and signed into law the state’s 2006 ban on almost all abortions, which was eventually repealed by voters last fall.
Yet Rounds appears reluctant to run. “He has made no plans to run for the Senate,” says Mitch Krebs, a spokesman. Other state insiders say that Rounds is more interested in spending time with his young grandchildren in South Dakota. Several activists and journalists throughout the state repeat a same decisive factor, as well: Rounds’s wife. “He would have to talk her into it,” says Patrick Powers, a blogger for “The South Dakota War College” website.
Another Republican possibility is former lieutenant governor Steve Kirby. He is the independently wealthy founder of a venture capital firm and could conceivably self-finance a run for the Senate.
“I’ve learned a long time ago that you never rule anything out,” Kirby says when asked about his potential candidacy. “It’s way too early to understand what the tea leaves hold for 2008.”
Kirby lost a gubernatorial primary to Rounds in 2002 and has familiarity within the party and the state. “His candidacy would probably make the Democrats most nervous,” says Powers.
The majority leader is South Dakota’s senate, Dave Knudson, has expressed interest in running for the Senate or for the state’s at-large seat in the House. His candidacy might not sit well with many conservatives, however: Knudson is a former Democrat who switched parties 1995, and is strongly pro-choice.
On the Democratic side, if Johnson steps aside, virtually the entire Democratic party will look to Rep. Herseth Sandlin. If she declines to get in, it will probably be because she is more interested in running for governor in 2010. In any case, she would be a formidable candidate; she won reelection last November with close to 70 percent of the vote. Her grandfather was governor in the 1950s, her grandmother was secretary of state in the 1970s, and her father was a longtime state legislator. Another potentially tough candidate would be former Senator Tom Daschle, who some activists say wants to reclaim his former position.
But still, everything depends on Sen. Johnson’s health.
Dr. Alesandro Olivi, a professor of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University, says that the severity and future risks associated with arteriovenous malformations (AVMs) depend very much on the size, location, and manifestation of the abnormal blood vessels.
But Johnson’s case seems particularly notable. “AVMs are not common, and only a fraction of them lead to significant episodes,” Dr. Olivi says. “Each hemorrhage is different, but certainly the risk for another episode is higher — maybe 50 percent.”
While the risk may be elevated, Olivi refuses to speculate on how the stresses of a campaign could elevate Johnson’s risk of a recurrence. Another event, Olivi says, is usually not associated with anything else, though, he says, “Certainly, maintaining a healthy lifestyle and low blood pressure are recommendable.”
Kephart acknowledges that if Johnson seeks reelection, he may face an uphill battle. “It may well be that the party allows me to be the sacrificial lamb.”
— Michael O’Brien, a Collegiate Network intern at National Review, is editor of the Michigan Review.