Hey, did you see the latest campaign ad by Dusty Johnson, the one where he’s wearing a buckskin coat and John Deere cap as he rides a white horse off into the sunset while holding a lever-action rifle in one hand and a fishing rod in the other?
Yeah, neither did I. That’s because there is no such ad. And there won’t be, either.
While other Republican candidates for the U.S. House and South Dakota governor’s chair are hitting hard on guns and horses and tractors and hay bales, Johnson has a different approach. And so far it leaves his jeans and Tony Llama boots at home, in favor of business casual and a bit of whimsy.
“I know how to drive a tractor. And while I wouldn’t say I’m an expert equestrian, I know how to ride a horse,” Johnson says. “Obviously I also know how to hunt and fish, but I’m not emphasizing that in my advertising.”
Instead, his first major ad has him in a sports coat standing on stage outlining his “Full Dusty” agenda and predicting that “Washington won’t know what hit them.” And in the next he is lunching on burgers and fries with his three sons, inspiring wide-eyed alarm in the boys as he schools them on their monster share of the federal debt.
Not a pheasant flying or a fish flopping, no hay bales being tossed or tractors being driven. Instead, Johnson spends most of his advertising time looking into the camera and admitting that he resembles “the world’s oldest teenager” and weighs “145 pounds soaking wet.” But he also professes the pertinent credentials of a native son of South Dakota and a conservative Republican.
“I will listen to you; I’ll fight for you; and I’ll never be outworked," he promises.
But not on a tractor, or a horse, which is a striking difference from the outdoorsy, agriculturally inspired ads for GOP gubernatorial candidates Kristi Noem and Marty Jackley. Same goes for Johnson’s main competition in the U.S. House race, South Dakota Secretary of State Shantel Krebs.
Johnson figures he can’t compete with them in the outdoor-theme ads or physical appeal, and he isn’t interested in trying.
“If you’re Kristi or Marty or Shantel, you’re attractive people, and there’s probably a thought that you need to convince people that you’re everyman and everywoman,” Johnson says. “And part of that is showing that you recreate like they do. I’ve never had any trouble convincing anybody that I’m everyman.”
He’s a 41-year-old everyman who grew up in Fort Pierre and Pierre in a family with an unsteady financial footing and a father who worked the front desk at a motel and the grounds at the South Dakota Capitol. Like other river-country kids, he grew up understanding principles of hard work for well-earned pay and did his share of free-time outdoors recreation: “Almost every weekend it was Spring Creek or Cow Creek, and camping with my buddies.”
He enjoys hunting and fishing, when he finds time for them. He likes to target shoot with his Sig Sauer handgun, and professes to be “a far better than average shot.” But his favorite recreation outdoors is hiking with his wife and three sons.
“I’m comfortable in jeans, but I don’t try to play that up,” he said.
Especially on camera, which is a little unusual in a state with a tradition -- in recent times, at least -- among candidates for major statewide office of promoting their outdoor and/or agricultural credentials. Usually, there’s some basis for it. And there certainly is in the U.S. House and governor’s races this year.
Noem comes from an eastern South Dakota farm family, has worked on that family farm operation and also run a small business. She still has her family home on that farm ground. Krebs is also a grown-up East River farm kid, lives in the country near Fort Pierre and is a part owner in a buffalo ranch. Jackley grew up as a western South Dakota town kid, but with a small family farm nearby, land that remains in the family. And he married into a ranch family near Rapid City, where he regularly helps with livestock chores.
That’s all useful material to highlight in a campaign, says Northern State University political science professor Jon Schaff. In primary elections especially, where party affiliation isn’t a voting issue, image moves voters, Schaff said.
And the more the image projects comfortable, familiar subjects that connect emotionally to voters, the more useful the image is.
“One of the things you want to engage is the kind of things people in South Dakota can relate to,” Schaff said. “Most people in South Dakota are from the farm or one or two generations removed from the farm, or have relatives living on the farm.”
Like outdoor work, outdoor recreation is central to life in South Dakota and carries important emotional connections, he said.
“Even the dress associated with these things matters. So wearing blue jeans, plaid shirts, doing things South Dakotans do, like shooting guns, riding horses, going fishing or hunting, those things — they say this person is one of us, therefore I can trust this person and give them my vote,” Schaff said.
It has worked in the past for candidates like Noem, who is in her fourth term in the U.S. House, and former three-term House member and current third-term U.S. Sen. John Thune, he said.
“It’s tough to out-South Dakota Kristi Noem,” Schaff said. “And Thune is the same way. It’s tough to out-South Dakota Thune.”
In addition, Schaff said, Johnson has “the misfortune for a politician in that he looks 10 years younger than he is. He’s got that baby face … he looks like he should be playing Dungeons and Dragons in his parent’s basement.”
A bit of a stretch, perhaps, but one that Johnson himself acknowledges and doesn’t hesitate to joke about. But he doesn’t joke about his role in eliminating a $120 million state budget deficit while he worked as chief of staff for Gov. Dennis Daugaard.
He showed off a bit of the South Dakota work ethic by doing something many elected members of Congress likely haven’t done: He read the entire 641 pages of the most recent version of federal farm legislation, and lived to tell meaningful tales about it. And with two statewide campaign wins for a Public Utilities Commission spot on his resume, Johnson likes to highlight the PUC work he did across the state, followed by his chores in private enterprise in Mitchell, where he lives with his wife and sons.
Johnson said he considers his work credentials, his lifetime of paying attention to South Dakota people and issues and his energy to be worth more in the campaign than any attempt to create a different image for himself, one that could put him at risk of “seeming inauthentic.”
He seems plenty authentic and a bit nerd-like in his advertisements. He admits they are “a little goofy” but are crafted to address serious subjects with “a bit more whimsical vibe.”
So he’ll leave the horse riding and tractor driving and the bale tossing to other candidates, but will still wear his jeans and occasionally his Tony Llama boots on weekends, as he always has.
Meanwhile, he’s working to keep campaign business in proper perspective with the rest his life.
“I think there are worse things in life than losing, and pandering is one of them,” Johnson says. “I’m in a position in my life where I can afford to run the kind of campaign I can be proud of. And if I don’t win it’s not going to ruin my life. I’ve got lots of other things I’m excited to do.”
But he’s plenty excited about this campaign and the possibility of serving in the U.S. House, knowing all the while that beating Krebs is a formidable challenge. Those two are the race. The third GOP candidate in the House primary, state Sen. Neal Tapio of Watertown, is a political outlier considered to be a shoe-in for third place.
Tapio’s impact on the race could be significant, however, if he takes more votes from Krebs than he does from Johnson, which seems like the mostly likely scenario. Many of Tapio’s supporters are adversaries or critics of Daugaard, who has endorsed Johnson and is shown at work with Johnson in the “Full Dusty” ad. To many outside the Republican mainstream, a vote for Johnson is a vote for Daugaard in style and policies.
So those Tapio supporters would have been more likely to support Krebs than Johnson if Tapio weren’t in the race. That’s camaign speculation, of course, but it's pretty well informed. It's the final percentage breakdown of Tapio votes and where they go that could be decisive if the vote is close.
Early in his campaign, Johnson said Krebs should be considered the frontrunner, an analysis based on both political gamesmanship and a sense of reality. Krebs is a former state senator and current Secretary of State who has performed well in shaping up a troubled office. So she has standing in the Republican Party and credentials of her own.
Johnson still speaks cautiously about his standing in the race. Even so, it’s clear with less than a month to go before the June 5 primary that he believes he is in a much-better spot than he was months ago.
But that spot isn’t on a horse or a tractor, or in a pheasant field or fishing boat. And that's just the way "the world’s oldest teenager" wants it.