Candidates in GOP House, governor's races offer emphatic answers to: Why can't we all just be friends?

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
Like the governor's primary, things have gotten testy in House race

For months, a Republican friend of mine has been looking for a fight. Not in the streets. In the campaigns.

Finally, he got what he’s been looking for in the Republican U.S. House and gubernatorial primaries.

Things have gotten personal between Kristi Noem and Marty Jackley. Ditto between Shantel Krebs and Dusty Johnson. Everybody’s been swinging, but Noem and Krebs especially.

Based on what I’ve seen of the change in demeanor and tactics, I find the whole thing disappointing but not surprising, sad but not unusual, and at times a little sordid.

Which means it’s right where my friend likes a campaign to be — finally, he might say.

When I checked a while back by Facebook to see what he thought of the campaigns, his response was: “Ho-hum.”

He likes action in campaigns, which tends to mean mudslinging. He might call it emphatic engagement on the issues. And there certainly are issues involved, along with the emphatic engagement. You saw some of that in Tuesday night’s TV debate between Noem and Jackley on South Dakota Public Broadcasting.

Noem is a natural campaigner and a good political debater, with experience dating back to her days in the South Dakota Legislature. There her style — which included accusing a Democratic senator of a conflict-of interest during a testy exchange during a committee meeting —  made friends and foes among legislators, including members of her own Republican caucus.

She’s as tough a campaigner as I’ve ever covered, with no hesitation to throw a hard-right hand and no second thoughts after that. For that, I think she is often judged more harshly than a male candidate with similar tendencies would be.

So what else is new, right?

Noem stands to make history if she becomes the first woman governor in South Dakota. But there’s a lot between her and that particular point in history, with Jackley being the immediate obstacle. And a tough one.

There’s pretty clear evidence in polling and in behavior by Noem and Jackley over the course of the campaign that the congresswoman was the frontrunner for most of it. The tightening of the race in recent weeks has been clear in the way Noem is campaigning and advertising. It’s rough,tough stuff, with a daily flurry of accusations against Jackley now coming from the Noem campaign and from Noem in person.

Noem is very comfortable on the offensive. She told me recently that early on in her political life she was on occasion personally offended by the hard back-and-forth that sometimes goes with the game, but was reminded by someone that “it’s a full-contact sport.”

For sure, it can be. And Noem isn’t afraid of contact, such as the kind in play right now in the U.S. House and gubernatorial primaries.

Jackley has been swinging back lately, but it’s pretty clear he isn’t comfortable in that role. He’s better at trying to counterpunch than attack.

In the House race, Johnson seems to hate going on the attack, and rarely has. Krebs has tried to engage aggressively for months, more so lately. But it isn’t a style that comes as easily to her as it does to Noem, nor is it as effective.

Some of this is simply issues exploration and a delineation of differences, with an edge. But in a party primary where all four candidates proclaim themselves as pro-gun, anti-abortion, small-government, anti-tax conservatives, what differences are there to be explored? It takes some work to find them or create them.

In a previous column, I talked about how a grain of truth can be exploited, overexploited and expanded into near fantasy — or sometimes outright fantasy — by skilled campaign message-makers with flexible ethics.

That’s how Krebs became a target for an oversized postcard sent out by Citizens for a Strong America. It tried to blame Krebs for a “crazy spy-and-tax scheme,” an allegation that was based, loosely, on a high-tax concept from another state that she casually mentioned in a summer committee as a legislator a decade ago. The postcard was about as close to pure fiction as it gets.

You can try to blame Johnson for that. And Krebs did. But I can’t find any clear evidence that he was involved. Somebody from out of state with a bunch of money doesn’t want Krebs in Congress for one reason or another. That happens a lot.

As you probably know, I snooped around a bit and found out a bit about Citizens for a Strong America and reported that it cost the group about $37,000 to distribute the mailer.

Citizens for a Strong America followed with another mailer that was not nearly as ominously dramatic. Actually, it was kind of goofy, portraying Krebs as the queen of tax increases, complete with Photoshopped crown on her head.

Unlike the first mailer, the second had more basis in fact, because as a state legislator Krebs voted for a variety of tax and fee increases. Many other Republican legislators did as well.

Rapid City Journal reporter Seth Tupper snooped around quite a bit (nobody snoops much better than Seth) and found out that second mailer cost Citizens about $26,000. More than that, Tupper reported Wednesday that the so-called super PAC — which has a great deal of freedom to raise and spend money independently in candidate races — had spent a total of $240,000 against Krebs, including mailers and TV ads.

That’s a lot of dough sending bad messaging at a candidate in a U.S. primary in a state like South Dakota.

Krebs staffers — I haven’t yet spoken to Krebs directly on any of this, either because she doesn’t trust me or she simply prefers others to respond — have been pointing out connections between Citizens and Koch Enterprises, which recently endorsed Johnson. And they’ve pointed out connections between Citizens for a Strong America and a nonprofit named No Labels, which Johnson says he met with last year.

So there’s a multi-tentacled connection, but with thin tentacles.

Johnson says he didn’t know of the connections between No Labels and Citizens and didn’t have any advanced knowledge of the Citizens ads. He also said he didn’t like the tone of the first mailer.

Meanwhile, Krebs has gone on the attack with advertising and statements accusing Johnson of misusing state airplanes when he was working as chief of staff for Gov. Dennis Daugaard. Records provided by the Krebs campaign show there were instances where a state plane went out of its way to transport Johnson to or from his home in Pierre for state business in other towns.

It’s not a scandal. But it’s one of those issues that can make us regular citizens wonder about the creature comforts afforded to those in power, as Republicans have been in South Dakota for what seems like, well, forever.

Johnson could have driven to Pierre himself, after all. He argues that the trips were productive for the state, saving millions while costing thousands. And he said others in state government with homes away from Pierre have done the same thing.

Another issue that was sure to come up, and one I think is more valid than the airplane thing, was the fact that Johnson won a second term on the state Public Utilities Commission in November of 2010, only to give up that seat to take the chief of staff’s job with Daugaard in January of 2011.

At the time, many people — including me — told Johnson that would be a campaign issue when he ran for statewide office again, as he was expected to do. He knew it, but said he believed his work with Daugaard, which included helping to eliminate a burdensome $127 million budget deficit, would be worth it.

We’ll see if it was, to his political career, at least. So far so good in this campaign.

Based on what I’ve hear of the limited internal polling in the House primary, Johnson has gained ground since the first of the year. And the professional polling purchased by Keloland News and the Sioux Falls Argus Leader and released this week showed Johnson with what appeared to be a comfortable, perhaps decisive lead.

He’s not comfortable, though. Not yet. A lot can happen in five days. And Johnson has lately struck back, lightly, at Krebs. He is raising the tax-and-fee issue himself and arguing that it belies her rhetoric as a conservative.

But Johnson has avoided much serial mudslinging, preferring responses that include a video of him sitting on a comfortable-looking couch with his wife and three kids, rejecting “personal attacks” and “character attacks” because “that’s not our way.”

On the Johnson campaign’s Facebook page today, this comment appears above an Argus Leader story about the poll results: “18 pound lead. Clean campaigning works.”

The poll shows Johnson at 41 percent, Krebs at 23 percent and state Sen. Neal Tapio of Watertown at 13 percent. With such a lead, the poll’s 4.5 percent margin of error becomes irrelevant.

But there’s still 23 percent undecided, quite a few this close to the June 5 vote. And Krebs probably asked herself what the race would be like if Tapio weren’t in it. It seems likely most of his supporters would be more likely to lean toward Krebs than toward Johnson.

As the endorsed candidate of Gov. Daugaard, who maintains very high favorables among Republicans in South Dakota, Johnson had that advantage from the start. A TV ad that began running recently with the governor and Johnson seemed like the closer to me.

You’d find plenty of people among Tapio supporters, and quite a few among Krebs supporters, who aren’t Daugaard supporters. Without Tapio, would this race be inside the margin of error? Maybe not quite, but who knows?

Of course, Tapio might be thinking: “If only Krebs weren’t in this race, I’d be right there.”

I’d guess not. But his 13 percent, which could grow by Tuesday, is respectable for a candidate I consider to be on the fringe.

Krebs maintains a strong base of support among some hard conservatives, including former state legislator Betty Olson of Reva. Never one to sugar coat her opinions, Olson wrote recently on her Facebook page: “It sure looks like these leftists are trying to get Dusty Johnson elected to Congress to help them stop Trump. I don't know about you, but I'm voting for Shantel!!”

Then there was this from Shad Olson, a former TV news anchor from Blackhawk who runs on the hard-right side of things and has promoted the Tapio campaign: “If seven people running public private partnerships died on Bill Clinton's watch in Little Rock, you'd scream from the rafters. But you're voting Dusty Johnson, or Shantel Krebs for Congress. Interesting. Too dumb to be amusing. But interesting.”

He’s right about the screaming that would come from many Republican partisans if anything similar to the deaths connected to the EB-5 and Gear Up scandals had been tied to the Clintons. But he also veers well into outlier territory with a comment that skims the surface of a deep reservoir of conspiracy theories — some of them quite daft — about “the real stories” behind the deaths of Rich Benda and Scott Westerhuis and his family.

You probably know the officials stories, which seem a lot more credible than any others I have heard:

Benda, a former member of the Mike Rounds cabinet, was looking at charges of misuse of public money in the EB-5 scandal when he died of shotgun blast. Authorities — including Jackley — determined that the fatal wound was intentionally self-inflicted, apparently set up to look like a hunting accident.

The Gear Up scandal involved the managers of Mid Central Educational Cooperative in Platte, which handled — and mishandled, according to authorities — millions of dollars of public money intended to benefit Native American youth in the Gear Up educational program.

A state investigation overseen by Jackley determined that as auditors pieced together the puzzle of embezzlement, Scott Westerhuis shot and killed his wife, Nicole, and their four children (a bizarre, mind-numbing act of violence against loved ones unlike any we have known in South Dakota) set fire to their house and shot himself.

Noem made mostly vague references to the scandals throughout the campaign in arguing that change is needed in Pierre, while vaguely tying Jackley to the scandals. Her attacks on those subjects have grown more pointed and creative in recent days.

If the last stretch of the House campaign leaves little room for friendship after the race is over for Johnson and Krebs, there was never any chance of such friendship between Noem and Jackley. They don’t like each other. That’s been clear for months.

And maybe it’s just because once House Speaker Mark Mickelson dropped out of the race before he really got in it, it was clearly a Noem-Jackley contest. And in South Dakota for most of the past half century, the Republican who has won the primary for governor has won the governor’s chair, usually with ease. We’ll see if Billie Sutton can change that for the Democrats.

With no primary opponent of his own, Sutton must be enjoying the GOP primary show, hoping both candidates spend freely in an effort to win, leaving the victor with less for the general election campaign.

The nastier the better, too, for Democratic purposes. Not only does a good primary fight cause some division, it also reveals — through opposition research and messaging — vulnerabilities that can be emphasized in the general election.

That will be a delicate matter for Sutton, however, as a nice-guy candidate who isn’t inclined to get nasty in his rhetoric. I’m not sure he even knows how to do nasty. We’ll see about that, too.

But back to the grain-of-truth principle of campaign attacks. There are grains in Noem’s attacks on Jackley over EB-5 and Gear Up. He was the state’s chief law-enforcement officer while state monies were being mishandled. And he has been part of and in some instances a defender of the Republican establishment in South Dakota.

But he also was the guy who brought charges in both scandals, getting a guilty plea on one felony count against Joop Bolen, the principal in the EB-5 money handling. On that, Jackley also pushed for an won legislative approval for tougher legal penalties for such behavior and more oversight to prevent and detect it in the future.

And Jackley brought criminal charges against three former Mid Dakota officials, with trials scheduled to begin in coming weeks. So far, those are the only state or federal charges brought in the case.

Noem also pressed allegations of impropriety against Jackley around a 2016 groundbreaking near Brookings that Jackley attended for Global Aquaponics. The company never produced the high-tech fish farm that owner Tobias Ritesman of Sioux Falls promised to investors. He and another company official have since been charged by federal authorities with defrauding investors.

Jackley would love to not be in that picture with the ceremonial ground-breaking shovel. He argues that he gets invited to and attends a lot of groundbreaking ceremonies, and this was just one of the many.

Noem said during the SDPB debate Tuesday night that Ritesman held a fundraiser for Jackley’s campaign. Jackley said in response that he didn’t attend a fundraiser at Ritesman’s house.

But the always snoopy liberal blogger Cory Heidelberger wrote on his Dakota Free Press blog Wednesday that Jackley’s campaign finance reports might tell a different story. A copy on Dakota Free Press shows $700 in in-kind contributions from Ritesman for “food and location for event.”

I called Jackley for more details. He said he did indeed go to an event organized by Ritesman. But it wasn’t a fundraiser, Jackley said, but a more casual “meet-and-greet” without and check writing.

“He said he was having an event and that it would give me a chance to meet some people,” Jackley said. “So I stopped in, shook some hands and didn’t take one dime. I didn’t receive any money from him. I was there. I shook quite a few hands. I didn’t take a penny. I put it down as an in-kind anyway.”

When I called Jackley, he and staffers had just finished statements for a news release announcing that after a Division of Criminal Investigation review, he had concluded that a Box Elder police officer was justified in “firing his weapon and using lethal force” on May 2 after responding to a domestic-violence call.

That’s important business, and Jackley had other things to worry about, even as he prepared for his debate against Noem tonight.

That’s life on the campaign trail for most candidates. Noem didn’t stop being a congresswoman to run. And Krebs still has her duties as secretary of state. Johnson went part-time at Vantage Point Solutions in Mitchell for the closing stages of the campaign, but he still has duties there.

We’re going into the biggest weekend of the primary. And two of the four main candidates in these two races will feel lousy next Wednesday morning. Two others, of course, will go on to the general election.

And my fight-addicted Republican buddy will go back to a more “ho-hum” campaign existence, until the next time the mud starts to fly.



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.