Johnson re-enters politics, claims U.S. House seat

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This is the third in a four-part series by South Dakota News Watch about the political journey and Republican Party challenges faced by U.S. Representative Dusty Johnson:

In politics, working in the private sector and spending more time with family can also mean mulling the right moment to get back in the game.

Congressman Dusty Johnson waves to supporters on Election Day in 2020.
Congressman Dusty Johnson waves to supporters on Election Day in 2020.

When Dusty Johnson announced he was leaving his position as Dennis Daugaard’s chief of staff after the 2014 election to work for Vantage Point Solutions, a Mitchell-based technology consulting firm, he cited no such ulterior motives.

But he didn’t rule anything out.

“I had conversations with the CEO during the hiring process where I said, ‘Listen, there's a decent chance I'm done with politics. I mean, I might be a co-owner of this business with you for the next 30 years, but I also want to be palms up. There's a chance that I'm going to feel called to run for something in the future.’ I didn’t have a particular office in mind.”

If Johnson’s upbringing in Pierre, successful PUC campaigns and stint in the governor’s office positioned him to become a South Dakota statesman, it was natural to ask, as he reached 40 years old, when his time would come.

Tremors within the Republican Party, both in-state and nationally, added urgency.

Trump announced his presidential run in June 2015, promising to build “a great, great wall” on the southern border. Six months later, after a mass shooting in California committed by extremists inspired by Islamic terrorists, the real estate mogul and former reality TV star called for “a total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the country.

Noem, who criticized Trump’s candidacy and character but became a political ally when he won the White House, was making moves. She announced she was running for governor six days after her 2016 re-election to the House, beating a deadline to transfer funds left from her congressional campaign into a state account for governor.

That left an enticing opening for South Dakota’s lone U.S House seat.

“The timing was right,” said Dusty’s wife, Jacqueline. “You don’t want to regret not trying.”

The 2018 election would mark eight years since Johnson had run for office and four years since he worked full-time politically. But there were only so many shots at major seats in South Dakota, and the leanings of his lifelong party made him restless.

His campaign kickoff at the Alex Johnson Hotel in Rapid City in May 2017 played all the hits, bringing back the cardboard cutouts, jokes about his resemblance to popcorn impresario Orville Redenbacher and a sequel of his “elevator speech” ad, featuring a cameo from Jacqueline and the kids and ending with a manufactured “Go, Dusty, Go!” chant.

Johnson’s speech to supporters that day was more solemn.

He pledged to steer away from the bitterness and anger of the political scene and focus not on cultural grievances but issues more central to South Dakotans’ everyday lives. It was a subject that had weighed on his mind since the populist emergence of Trump and the formation of the Freedom Caucus in Congress, making it hard to stay on the sidelines.

“I just didn't understand why everybody needed to be angry all the time and why the rhetoric needed to be so toxic,” Johnson told News Watch of his decision to run. “I was making more money in the private sector than I would make in Congress, and obviously I was able to spend more time at home. But it didn't seem like that was a good excuse for not getting back into the arena. It sort of felt like I was taking the cheap way out.”

His most prominent primary opponent was Secretary of State Shantel Krebs, a former state legislator who touted her political experience and small-government approach. The wild-card candidate was state senator and former Trump state campaign chair Neal Tapio, who echoed the president’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and advocated for restricting refugee resettlement.

Dusty Johnson with Sen. Mike Rounds (second from left) and Sen. John Thune (far right), along with Gov. Kristi Noem at a South Dakota event. The congressional delegation has had a sometimes strained relationship with Noem.
Dusty Johnson with Sen. Mike Rounds (second from left) and Sen. John Thune (far right), along with Gov. Kristi Noem at a South Dakota event. The congressional delegation has had a sometimes strained relationship with Noem.

Krebs declined an interview request for this story.

Tapio sent a message to News Watch declaring Johnson, Thune and Rounds to be “South Dakota representatives of the globalist establishment mafia.”

Krebs courted “America First” supporters by touting an endorsement from Kansas Secretary of State and Trump adviser Kris Kobach, echoing his call for a registry for people from areas where terror threats were detected.

Johnson tried to stay above the fray, offering support for Trump’s travel ban but opposing the Muslim registry as “clearly unconstitutional.”

The gloves came off in the late stages of a debate held a week before the June primary, with Krebs down in the polls. She fended off claims from Johnson about her voting record on spending bills, which he said cast doubt on her claims of fiscal austerity.

Krebs then called into question Johnson’s use of taxpayer-funded state planes when he served as chief of staff, teasing TV ads that rolled out the next morning. At issue were flights where Johnson was picked up and dropped off in Mitchell for state business rather than Pierre, costing the state tens of thousands of dollars, according to Krebs’ camp.

Johnson’s campaign sent a cease-and-desist letter to television stations to stop airing the ads, but the commercials kept running. Daugaard did interviews calling the allegations “absolutely false,” bolstering Johnson’s contention that the claims were a Hail Mary from a desperate candidate rather than substantive breach of the public trust.

“I'm sure my public statements at the time indicated that I thought it was baloney, but looking back, I don't have any particular anger about it,” Johnson said. “I mean, these are the things that happen in campaigns. It certainly helped to have my boss publicly explain that these were things he was asking me to do. He was asking me to renegotiate contracts with medical providers, and there were contracting officials and Cabinet secretaries who were also going to these meetings. None of these flights were commute flights.”

Internal polling didn’t show any real damage from the claims, allowing Johnson to keep his cushion. He carried 48% of the vote in the primary, distancing himself from Krebs (30%) and Tapio (22%) and justifying the strategy of staying in his campaign lane, regardless of the noise.

“I think it shows that when it's competitive, it's hard to outwork and out prepare Dusty Johnson,” said Schaff. “I mean, Shantel Krebs is a talented politician and basically popular and I don't think your standard-issue Republican would have had a problem with her. But Dusty just works really hard and probably seemed like a more credible candidate when it mattered.”

The general election against Democrat Tim Bjorkman was largely a formality, but Johnson took no chances. He doubled his opponent’s fundraising haul and took his “Energy to Burn” tour through 30 cities and rural towns, pledging support for the ethanol industry, work requirements for welfare programs and balanced federal budgets.

On election night, Dusty’s parents looked on at the Hilton Garden Inn in Sioux Falls as their son declared victory with 60% percent of the vote. For Kevin and Jacque, it seemed the culmination of a political journey, from a fifth grader testifying in Pierre to an influential Teenage Republican and trusted adviser to a United States congressman taking his talents to Washington.

This article was produced by South Dakota News Watch, a non-profit journalism organization located online at

This article originally appeared on Sioux Falls Argus Leader: Johnson re-enters politics, claims U.S. House seat