Sen. Tim Johnson (D)
Elected: 1996, term expires 2014, 3rd term.
Born: Dec. 28, 1946, Canton .
Education: U. of SD, B.A. 1969, M.A. 1970, J.D. 1975, MI St. U., 1970-71.
Family: Married (Barbara); 3 children.
Elected office: SD House of Reps., 1978–82; SD Senate, 1982–86; U.S. House of Reps., 1986–96.
Professional Career: Budget analyst, MI Senate, 1971–72; Practicing atty., 1975–85; Clay Cnty. dpty. atty., 1985.
Democrat Tim Johnson was elected to the Senate in 1996. He grew up in Canton, Flandreau and Vermillion in southeast South Dakota and went to the University of South Dakota, where he ultimately earned a law degree. Johnson served briefly in the Army, but was discharged because of a hearing problem. He opened a law practice in Vermillion, and then got increasingly involved in politics. He was elected to the state House in 1978, at age 31, and served four years. In 1982, he was elected to the state Senate for another four years. When Democratic U.S. Rep. Tom Daschle ran for the Senate in 1986, Johnson ran for the at-large House seat and won the general election 59%-41%. He was re-elected easily every two years. In the House, Johnson compiled a generally liberal voting record, though he sometimes voted for conservative fiscal proposals, such as the balanced budget amendment of the 1990s.
|Tim Johnson (D)||237,889||(62%)||($4,712,283)|
|Joel Dykstra (R)||142,784||(38%)||($905,366)|
|Tim Johnson (D)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2002 (50%), 1996 (51%), 1994 House (60%), 1994 House (60%), 1992 House (69%), 1990 House (68%), 1988 House (72%), 1986 House (59%)
In 1996, Johnson challenged Republican Sen. Larry Pressler, then chairman of the influential Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. This was a high-spending, high-stakes race. Pressler spent $5.1 million, and Johnson spent almost $3 million. The race was neck-and-neck for 15 months. Since South Dakota television is relatively inexpensive, that meant one barrage of ads after another, plus seven debates. Pressler attacked Johnson as too liberal, going back to a 1981 vote in the Legislature against workfare, the practice of requiring welfare recipients to work. Johnson attacked Pressler as a clone of Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and a Medicare-cutter. Pressler spent much time in 1995 and 1996 on the telecommunications bill, a heavily lobbied and complex bill. He succeeded in passing the bill, a significant accomplishment. But back home, Johnson charged that phone and cable rates were going up because of Pressler’s work. The final result was a 51%-49% Johnson victory.
Johnson’s voting record has been toward the center of the Senate, though more liberal on foreign affairs issues. He seldom seeks or gets publicity as other senators do. “There are enough show horses in Washington to go around,” he likes to say. By early 2001, it was apparent that Johnson would face a tough challenge in 2002. President George W. Bush talked popular Republican Rep. John Thune into running for the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota immediately made saving his friend and fellow home-state Democrat “the most important political effort for me” in 2002. Daschle helped Johnson get a seat on the Appropriations Committee, where he could secure federal money for South Dakota. And Johnson was careful to cast some moderate votes on big issues. Thune argued that the state would be better off with a bipartisan Senate delegation. (He did not tout the fact that a victory for him could have given the Republicans a Senate majority and demote Daschle to minority leader, making him a less powerful advocate for the state.) The two candidates spent record amounts for a South Dakota race—about $6 million each—and the national parties and independent expenditure groups on both sides spent much more. A week of TV ads cost only about $80,000 in South Dakota, as compared to about $1.5 million in Los Angeles. The ads started running in late 2001, and by November 2002 the average voter had seen more than 1,000 of them.
Thune was the more outgoing of the two, a candidate who loved shaking hands and seldom forgot a face. The reserved Johnson was nevertheless tenacious. Of all the seriously contested Democratic senators in 2002, Johnson ran the most conservative-sounding campaign. “Tim Johnson has strongly supported President Bush, the war against terrorism, his tax cut and his education reform,” one ad said. Thune attacked him for voting against making the Bush tax cut permanent. Johnson replied that he supported eliminating the estate tax for family farmers and ranchers and family-owned businesses.
The biggest local issue was the drought that hit western South Dakota in 2002. Ranchers were selling off their herds for low prices, and business losses were estimated at $1.8 billion. Daschle and Johnson responded by sponsoring $5 billion in disaster aid for farmers and ranchers, arguing that if floods and tornadoes triggered disaster relief, then droughts should too. In mid-September, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced $750 million in aid for 30 states. Democrats grumbled that it was a pittance, but Daschle’s bill was stalled in the Senate. On defense issues, Thune tried to make an issue of Johnson’s opposition to the first Gulf War in 1991, but the impact was mitigated when Johnson announced he would vote for the pending resolution authorizing war in Iraq. He also noted that his son, Brooks Johnson, served with the 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002 and could be sent to Iraq.
The election turned out to be the closest in the nation that year. During most of election night, Thune was in the lead, but the last two precincts to be counted came in from Shannon County, which includes most of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. They put Johnson over the top by a margin of 524 votes. The county voted 92%-8% for Johnson. In the six main reservation counties, turnout was 11,275, up from 7,500 in 2000. These six counties voted 78%-21% for Johnson. In 43 of the other 60 counties, including the 10 largest, Johnson’s percentage declined from 1996, when he won 51% statewide. Many Republicans urged Thune to contest the election, but he declined. Johnson had won two full terms in the Senate by the smallest combined popular vote margin, 9,103, of any senator since Republican George Malone of Nevada, elected by a combined margin of 7,970 in 1946 and 1952.
In his second term, Johnson, back in the minority again, worked hard on South Dakota issues. He helped get passed country-of-origin meat labeling and a bill to provide more funding for housing on Indian reservations. In 2006, he supported funding for improved access to affordable health care in rural communities, and in the 2005 energy bill he worked on increases for ethanol and other renewable fuels. South Dakota devotes more of its corn to ethanol than any other state. On other issues, he co-sponsored a bipartisan bill to overhaul regulation of the insurance industry, giving companies the option of federal or state regulation. And in March 2006, Johnson derided as “extreme and radical” a new South Dakota ban on most abortions.
After Daschle’s strenuous efforts to save Johnson in 2002, he could not save himself two years later when Thune came back for a second run at the Senate. Shortly after Thune’s stunning defeat of Daschle, Johnson convened a meeting of the new delegation with Thune and Democratic At Large Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin to call a truce and to suggest they work together on South Dakota projects. The three joined forces successfully in saving Ellsworth Air Force Base in the base-closing review process of 2005.
With Democratic successes at the polls in 2006, Democrats gained a Senate majority and Johnson got the gavels of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, and the Banking Subcommittee on Financial Institutions. Then, on December 13, 2006, Johnson suffered a brain hemorrhage while working at the Capitol. Within hours, he had extensive brain surgery. With prospects of his survival unclear and the assumption that Republican Gov. Mike Rounds would appoint a Republican successor, speculation grew that Johnson’s departure from the Senate could reverse the Democrats’ expected assumption of majority control. Although Johnson survived the immediate crisis, it became clear that he would be absent from the Senate for at least several months. Veteran Senate observers recalled that Republican Sen. Karl Mundt, also of South Dakota, had a stroke in November 1969 and did not vote during the final three years of his Senate tenure. By March, Johnson’s office released photographs of a smiling Johnson with his family. Amid the uncertainty and also out of respect for Johnson, Democratic senators assisted him in fundraising for his 2008 re-election and potential Republican rivals such as Rounds delayed their decisions. On September 5, 2007, Johnson returned to the Senate and made his first floor speech of the year. “My speech is not 100 percent,” he said. “But my thoughts are clear and my mind is sharp.”
Johnson has continued to suffer lingering health effects such as slurred speech and partial paralysis on his right side, but they have not impaired his ability to work. He successfully fought to include more than $87 million for South Dakota water projects in the 2009 appropriations bills. And, on the 2008 farm bill, Johnson won passage of a provision requiring meat products to carry country-of-origin labeling, which he had worked on for several years. In April 2009, Johnson broke with Democrats on the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee and voted against legislation to bar credit card companies from engaging in practices such as charging interest on late fees. The credit card industry is one of South Dakota’s biggest employers.
Johnson sought a third term in 2008, and was challenged by Republican State Rep. Joel Dykstra. He suggested that Johnson was not physically up to the rigors of service in the Senate and criticized his vote against a 2005 bill that would have increased oversight of mortgage lending practices, an issue with potential resonance during the housing foreclosure crisis of 2008. But neither line of attack struck a chord with voters, and Johnson trounced Dykstra 62%-38%. Exit polls showed that he won support from about a third of the voters who identified themselves as Republicans.