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Johnson Illness Stymies GOP

Sen. Tim Johnson’s (D-S.D.) slow but steady recovery from a stroke has done no apparent political damage to his 2008 re-election hopes. But it has hamstrung Republican efforts to recruit a top-tier challenger and put a severe damper on GOP fundraising for what was expected to be one of the marquee races of the 2008 cycle.

Republicans have been leery of launching even the mildest rhetorical attack against Johnson since he was hospitalized Dec. 13, and they acknowledge that his illness temporarily has frozen any effort to oust him. Meanwhile, Johnson — with the help of fellow Senate Democrats — has continued to build his war chest, and in light of a healthy prognosis by doctors, recently reignited his campaign operation.

“Make no mistake, it does handicap Republican candidates,” said potential Johnson challenger Dusty Johnson (R), the elected chairman of the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, who is not related to the Senator. “Politically, things are very much on hold.”

Dusty Johnson’s dilemma is a near perfect example of the uncomfortable situation Sen. Johnson’s illness has put Republicans in as they try to prepare for what should be one of their best Senate pickup opportunities of the 2008 cycle.

After popular Gov. Mike Rounds (R), Dusty Johnson is one of the first individuals mentioned when Republican operatives list potential candidates who could give Sen. Johnson a serious challenge. But Dusty Johnson is deferring to Rounds, who, in turn, appears to be holding off a formal decision on running pending a clearer picture of Sen. Johnson’s plans.

Both Democratic and Republican observers of South Dakota politics believe Rounds, elected to a second term in November, would run only if Johnson retires.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign (Nev.), referring to Rounds as his first choice to either challenge Sen. Johnson or run for an open seat, acknowledged that Sen. Johnson’s illness momentarily has disabled Republican plans to target him. Meanwhile, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) recently formed a joint fundraising committee with Sen. Johnson, with the Senator’s other colleagues also pitching in on that front.

“That was one of our top chances for a pickup and still remains one of our top chances for a pickup,” Ensign said, before adding: “It’s delicate. It’s delicate right now, and so you have to be sensitive to, you know, the personal needs of that family.”

Sen. Johnson, 60, is now out of the hospital and in a private rehabilitation facility. He is meeting regularly with his chief of staff and hiring campaign aides. Johnson spokeswoman Julianne Fisher — who stated in January that the Senator’s political future is on hold — said Tuesday that his re-election effort is now moving forward.

But for Republicans, the waiting game continues, in large part because it still remains politically unseemly to target the Democratic incumbent — particularly in South Dakota.

South Dakota is a small state, where everybody tends to know everybody and civility in political campaigns still reigns despite the hard-fought nature of Senate races in 2002 and 2004, respectively, that saw now-Sen. John Thune (R) barely lose to Sen. Johnson before beating then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) by a hair two years later.

In fact, Dusty Johnson, 30, though clearly a partisan Republican who served in the Rounds administration and credits the governor for being an invaluable supporter, described himself as a former classmate and personal friend of Sen. Johnson’s son, Brendan. These kinds of cross-party personal relationships exist throughout the state and have motivated many Republicans to stay silent on next year’s race, other than to highlight their wish that Sen. Johnson make a full recovery.

“I’m always more than a little uncomfortable thinking about my political future when the future health of Sen. Johnson is still in question,” Dusty Johnson said. “We all respect him a great deal. Whether Republicans or Democrats, most South Dakotans have probably voted for him at some point, at least once or twice.”

South Dakota leans Republican — even more so in presidential years, giving the Senate GOP a rare opportunity to go on the offensive in a year that finds the party defending 21 seats, compared with just 12 for the Democrats. But Johnson, who is relatively popular and closed 2006 with $629,000 in cash on hand, already was well positioned to wage a tough re-election race before his illness indefinitely delayed the Republican effort.

Ensign, though acknowledging that major moves to target Johnson remain grounded, insisted in an interview late last week that Republicans are doing as much as they can within the bounds of what is acceptable politically. To prepare for Johnson’s presumed recovery, the NRSC is trying to woo Rounds into the race, while talking with other candidates seen as viable challengers.

But while Ensign emphasized that the NRSC is doing what it can, South Dakota Republicans stressed that there is little appetite to engage in any political activity for the Senate race absent a full recovery by Johnson or a decision by him to forgo re-election.

“It puts us in an awkward position,” said one Republican operative in South Dakota. “It’s hard to pick on the sick guy.”

Besides Rounds and Dusty Johnson, potential candidates on the NRSC’s radar include Sioux Falls businessman and former Lt. Gov. Steve Kirby, who is close to Thune and seen as someone who potentially could bankroll his own campaign; state Senate Majority Leader Dave Knudson; and current Lt. Gov. Dennis Daugaard.

Should Johnson retire, Rep. Stephanie Herseth, who runs statewide as South Dakota’s lone House Member, is seen as likely to replace him as the Democratic Senate candidate, although her office continues to decline to comment on the matter other than to say she looks forward to helping the Senator win in 2008.

Some Republicans believe they may not be able to launch an aggressive campaign for Johnson’s seat until late this year but say that does not automatically spell disaster for them in 2008.

These Republicans note that President Bush garnered 60 percent of the vote in South Dakota in 2000 and 2004, giving the GOP a natural advantage there. It is the Democratic candidate — whether Johnson, Herseth or another individual — who stands to suffer in November 2008 by not being able to begin a concerted campaign for the seat early in the cycle, some GOP strategists argue.

“I don’t think it’s dire yet for Republicans,” said one GOP operative with South Dakota experience.

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