As Johnson's U.S. House campaign takes off, how long will the Happy Warrior walk the bright path?

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
Dusty Johnson in Rapid City with sons Ben and Max, and wife Jacquelyn

Dusty Johnson fashioned his coming-out tour today to be all about him, his family, his optimistic energy and work ethic and his conservative values.

But it’s hard for any Republican candidate these days to run away from President Donald Trump, former FBI Director James Comey and the Russians.

So news reports that broke Tuesday indicating that the president tried to interfere with an FBI investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn carried over to questions for Johnson Wednesday morning here in Rapid City.

And the Republican candidate for South Dakota’s lone U.S. House seat didn’t tap dance for long when asked about the reports.

“If they’re true, it’s a real problem,” Johnson said. “I think if we have a president telling the FBI director to bury the investigation, we can’t tolerate that.”

Johnson wants more details about the February meeting between Trump and Comey in the Oval Office and a memo written soon after by Comey, whom Trump has since fired. Johnson also wants a thorough investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election but doubts the U.S. House is up to the job.

“It does seem like the House has viewed this issue through more of a partisan prism,” Johnson said.

He’s more hopeful about U.S. Senate investigators, but is also willing to support an independent investigation if Senate efforts aren’t thorough.

“It seems like the Senate is taking it seriously,” Johnson said. “But if it looks like our typical tools in Washingtton, D.C. are not getting it done, then yes, we might need an independent look. This is not something we can sweep under the rug. I think we need to get to the bottom of this.”

A few hours after Johnson's event, the U.S. Justice Department might pushed deeper toward that goal. Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod  Rosenstein, acting because Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the issue,  named former FBI Director Robert Mueller to be a special counsel in the investigation of Russian meddling of the election and whether there was any collusion between Trump campaign staffers and the Russians.

With startling news coming out of Washington almost every day, the president, Comey, Flynn and the Russian investigation will be among the key national issues facing Johnson in his run for the U.S. House, where he faces South Dakota Secretary of State Shantel Krebs in the Republican primary. Most observers see this race as highly competitive, with two experienced, well-connected Republicans squaring off.

Johnson started what he called his kick-off tour in Rapid City in the morning. He followed up with announcements midday in his hometown of Mitchell and later in the day in Sioux Falls.

With a lot of driving in-between.

“You’re not flying?” I asked before the event here.

“You kidding?” Johnson responded. “Don’t have that kind of money in a race like this.”

Besides, Johnson knows road time. When he worked as chief of staff for Gov. Dennis Daugaard, he had hundreds of miles a week on the road between his home in Mitchell and the South Dakota Capitol.

To say nothing of the day-to-day weight of being the governor’s chief of staff.

It was a burden that was particularly hard on his family, Johnson said at the time. After four years as chief of staff, he resigned to take a job with Vantage Point Solutions, a telecommunications engineering and consulting firm in Mitchell.

Johnson had previously served on the staff of Gov. Mike Rounds and earned his campaign experience after that by winning a seat on the state Public Utilities Commission in 2004. He was reelected to the PUC in November of 2010, but left soon after — a move that inspired some legitimate criticism — to join the governor’s staff.

Johnson said at the time he felt that he could do more for the state and its people as the governor’s chief of staff. That work will pay off in a political way, too, because Daugaard is endorsing Johnson in the House race.

Johnson says now that if he wins the race, he will follow the lead of U.S. Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds and Rep. Kristi Noem, all Republicans who maintain their families and homes in South Dakota and commute to Washington, D.C. for work during the week.

“You’re going to be alone half the time somewhere,” Johnson said, referring to a job that includes extended congressional recesses and constituent needs back in South Dakota, with plenty of air travel either way.

Johnson said another consideration is that his wife, Jacquelyn, has a business in Mitchell, where they live with there sons Max, 12, Ben, 9, and Owen, 5.

Max and Ben made the trip west for the Rapid City stop. At 5, Owen doesn’t travel quite as well or willingly. But he was to join the family for the Mitchell and Sioux Falls stops.

Max and Ben were part of Johnson’s short speech here, when they gladly raised their hands when they recognized familiar sayings from their father — including “that doesn’t go in the toaster” and “America is the great nation on the face of the Earth.”

Johnson was introduced by Republican state Rep. David Lust of Rapid City, who said he first met Johnson during basketball games that Johnson organized in Pierre. While avoiding a critique of Johnson’s “jump shot or dribbling ability,” Lust described Johnson’s overall play as “energetic, persistent and aggressive.

“He would just run circles around everyone,” Lust said. “Not always in the most productive manner, but …”

Facing the small audience of several dozen friends, supporters and reporters, Johnson promised to use his energy in the most productive ways to promote “limited government, local control and family values.”

Johnson said he would fight for conservative values in Washington, D.C., opposing efforts by liberals to gather and concentrate more power in the federal machinery.

“If you send me to Washington, I’ll work every day to send that power back,” he said.

Johnson said that if he’s elected to the House, he’ll challenge those with different philosophies and goals but also seek to build coalitions where possible to benefit South Dakota. He said he would push for a seat on the House Agriculture Committee and use his natural tendency to be a “policy wonk” to his constituent’s advantage.

But he also pledged a campaign based on issues, no personalities, and respectful disagreements rather than personal attacks. And he said he would serve the same way, if elected.

“If you want somebody who’s going to respect the political opposition, then I’m your guy,” he said.

Angry, personal rhetoric is counterproductive to good governing and is bad for the nation, Johnson said.

So how does that philosophy fit with the mean-spirited rhetoric so often used in political campaigns, and the seemingly incessant name-calling by President Trump?

There was a bit more tap dancing on that, as Johnson finally noted that Trump is “willing to be a disruptive force.”

But disruptive in a good way or destructive way? That’s more complicated. And deciding how to handle the inevitable Trump questions will be an ongoing puzzle for Johnson, and for most Republican officials and candidates.

“I think Donald Trump is the master of hard political rhetoric,” Johnson said, picking his words carefully.

But when pressed, he added: “I think the president would be more effective if he eased up on the attack lines. I think you can hold people accountable without being mean.”

You certainly can. But it remains to be seen whether that will be possible in the House campaign. Part of it might depend on how Shantel Krebs handles her campaign. If she hits hard — trying to define a position to Johnson’s right — how hard will he hit back?

Rapid City reporter Denise Ross was at the Johnson kickoff and later on public radio called Johnson “a happy warrior.” I love that. It reminds me of the exuberant energy of Hubert Humphrey, who earned that nickname with his style. Barack Obama even used the term to describe Joe Biden.

But it begins with what William Wordsworth had to say in his poem Character of the Happy Warrior:

“Who is the happy Warrior? Who is he
That every man in arms should wish to be?
—It is the generous Spirit, who, when brought
Among the tasks of real life, hath wrought
Upon the plan that pleased his boyish thought:
Whose high endeavours are an inward light
That makes the path before him always bright;”

Johnson always appears to be walking a bright path. But will that still be possible, in this hyper-political, often-angry environment? And, especially, is it possible in a Republican primary where the hard right of the party has its most influence, and can be its most demanding?

We’ll see.

Meanwhile, though, Johnson might find comfort and inspiration in the words of Wordsworth, who concludes his Happy Warrior poem like this:

“Who, whether praise of him must walk the earth
For ever, and to noble deeds give birth,
Or he must fall, to sleep without his fame,
And leave a dead unprofitable name—
Finds comfort in himself and in his cause;
And, while the mortal mist is gathering, draws
His breath in confidence of Heaven's applause:
This is the happy Warrior; this is he
That every man in arms should wish to be.”

Every man, and woman, in politics should wish to be as well.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.