S.D. Sen. Tim Johnson has a Republican challenger

Sen. Tim Johnson
Sen. Tim Johnson at one of his first public appearances in South Dakota. He was at a meeting in Sioux Falls on water pipeline projects important to South Dakota in October of 2007.
MPR Photo/Cara Hetland

Joel Dykstra says it's a good time to be a challenger. He says this is a year, people are fed up with the status quo and are looking for change.

"When we look at what gas prices are doing, when we see what the issues are in regard to health care reform and immigration," said Dykstra, "and we realize those very same issues have been on the table for 20 to 30 years and really haven't moved forward much."

Joel Dykstra
Rep. Joel Dykstra, center, has served in the South Dakota state Legislature since 2002, and is currently the assistant House majority leader.
Courtesy Joel Dykstra campaign

Dykstra is a state legislator from Canton. He served in the South Dakota House for six years and is currently the assistant majority leader. He's spent the last year courting Republicans, and overwhelmingly beat out two others in the primary.

Dykstra spent many years working abroad in the oil industry. He says it's an important insight and he has ideas to contribute to the ongoing national debate on energy sources.

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Dykstra says Sen. Johnson doesn't support exploring for new domestic oil sources in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, called ANWR.

"I think we do have the technology. We do have the industry. And I think with the oil profits receiving now, they have the investment capital to develop these things in an environmentally friendly and positive manner," said Dykstra.

"Tim Johnson will stand on his record of fighting for alternative energy and alternative energy sources that are homegrown to South Dakota. That's what will help us," responded Johnson's campaign manager Steve Jarding. "I don't know if an oil man is the most credible witness on the issue anyway."

"This is a 'kid glove' issue for the Republican Party."

Jarding says Johnson has secured millions of dollars for the ethanol and biodiesel industries, and for the expansion of wind energy.

While both campaigns say they'll stick to the issues of today, there is a lingering question about Sen. Johnson's health.

After suffering a brain hemorrhage in December of 2006, Johnson uses a motorized wheelchair or a cane, and is still weak on his right side. Johnson's speech is also slow, and at times difficult to understand.

Johnson has done only a handful of interviews since his return to the Senate, and his staff says he was unavailable for this story.

Steve Jarding says Johnson's condition is improving and that the senator will mount an active campaign.

"It might be a little different as far as Tim, cosmetically, in how you see him. But he'll be out and he'll be about, as he's done whenever he gets a break and he can come back to the state," said Jarding.

Jarding says in the past Johnson has walked parade routes during summer festivals, but now may ride in a car. Jarding stressed Johnson is busy in Washington working for South Dakotans.

That's the image Johnson's campaign will paint -- a senator working hard. And that's an image that will be touch to beat, according to Bill Anderson, director of the government research center at the University of South Dakota.

"Even if Sen. Johnson doesn't appear publicly with the other candidate, it's really not as much about that as what Sen. Johnson produces in the next three or four months in the Senate," said Anderson. "What kind of earmarks he's bringing home, how he's legislating for his state, how he's working on agricultural related issues. Those are the sorts of things that really end up doing it at the end of the day."

Anderson says the trick for the Republicans is to show weaknesses in Johnson's service without attacking Johnson's health.

"This is a 'kid glove' issue for the Republican Party. It's not easy to address concerns about Sen. Johnson's service, given the tough time Sen. Johnson has had with his health over the last couple of years," said Anderson.

Republican Joel Dykstra says he's glad to hear Johnson is healthy enough to run for re-election.

Dykstra says he looks forward to showing South Dakota voters the differences between the two of them in the campaigning to come.