I’ve attended two Democratic candidate kick-offs this year, Senator Billie Sutton’s gubernatorial announcement on May 31 and Judge Tim Bjorkman’s Congressional announcement on July 13. Since it’s a beautiful sunny weekend, let’s take a break from policy and talk about the press and political optics of these two events.
Sutton and Bjorkman both launched their campaigns on their home turf—Sutton out in Gregory County, Bjorkman in Canistota—which means neither launched in a major media center. But the Sutton event was clearly designed to accommodate the statewide media who would make the drive. Team Sutton staged its show on a Wednesday at 11 a.m., allowing plenty of time for reporters from Sioux Falls and Rapid City to drive to the Sutton Ranch and still get home in time to file for the 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. news. Team Sutton set up a flatbed trailer behind the crowd to give the press good camera angles. The campaign distributed signs during the show to enhance the visuals. The campaign incentivized attendance with a tease: they didn’t say for which office Sutton was declaring, meaning reporters wanting the first headline or Tweet had to be at the event.
Team Bjorkman didn’t tease us with any, “Will Tim go for House or primary Billie?” Bjorkman declared for House on Monday. Nor did Bjorkman’s launch lean toward the media in the other ways Sutton’s did. Team Bjorkman scheduled his launch for Thursday at 6 p.m.—good for friends and neighbors getting off work, but rotten for reporters who have to hustle after hours to make the 10 p.m. TV deadline or the print deadline for Friday’s paper. There was no flatbed or special media section; camera operators just grabbed the best free patches of grass they could find among the crowd. I didn’t see any campaigners handing out signs, though volunteers from out of town brought some well-used signs from this year’s frequent Resistance activities.
The Bjorkman campaign did appear to have a leg up on the Sutton campaign with handouts. When I parked down the street and started getting my gear out of my car, one member of a crew of very young volunteers approached and offered a Tim Bjorkman for Congress bumper sticker. Volunteers were also manning a sign-up table and handing out smaller shirt stickers, which were donned by numerous attendees. I arrived later at the Sutton event, so maybe I missed their handouts, but I didn’t see bumper stickers at the ranch. (But I was also mistaken about the composition of Sutton’s beef sandwiches, so I welcome correction!)
While both men downplayed partisan politics, the speakers at each event showed that Team Sutton was more consciously targeting a statewide Democratic audience. Introducing Sutton were three South Dakotans well known in Democratic circles: Sutton’s wife and Gregory County commissioner Kelsea Kenzy Sutton, former legislator Bernie Hunhoff, and former Texas Congressman Max Sandlin, who is now a Sioux Falls guy and husband of our former Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. Bjorkman’s introducers were more local and personal: his sister Nancy Pulford, his neighbor and former Canistota school superintendent Keith Ligtenberg, and his friend and local grocery entrepreneur Jeff Nielsen. Bjorkman’s speakers basically said, “We know and love Tim.” Sutton’s speakers said the same thing, but they sent an additional message. The presence of Hunhoff and Sandlin said, Billie is the Party’s guy. Primary him at your peril.
Bjorkman mustered a bigger crowd than Sutton. I guesstimated 130 at Sutton’s launch and 170 at Bjorkman’s. South Dakota Democratic Party chair Ann Tornberg attended both campaign kick-offs, as did prominent former Democratic legislator Scott Parsley from Madison. While my face-count is far from comprehensive, I saw a few more Democratic colleagues and candidates in Sutton’s crowd. Sutton drew folks like Mark Winegar and Quinten Burg, while Bjorkman drew former legislators Rod Hall and Frank Kloucek. Bjorkman’s crowd included a contingent of Sioux Falls Democratic Forum regulars. Bjorkman also drew the attendance of Republican District 25 Representative Tom Pischke and an observer from the Daugaard Administration… although I think those two Republicans were just in town for Canistota Sport Days.
Sutton’s launch clearly played up his rural credentials—at the ranch, Missouri River bluffs and boundless sky in the background, hay bales for seating, Sutton beef for lunch. The Sutton crowd was also rich with cowboy hats. I saw one cowboy hat in Canistota, and that was on Bjorkman’s son John. Bjorkman’s Canistota setting was far from urban, at the small-town veterans monument, in front of their small-town K-12 school, just up their small-town Main Street from the Sport Days carnival rides as they started up. (Patrick Lalley still would have called it too rural.)
But looking at the candidates themselves, you’d have taken Bjorkman for the more rural man. Sutton the cowboy left his hat on the ground and spoke in a dark business suit. Even with no necktie, Sutton was still a bit fancy for the local bar. Not Bjorkman: the former judge stepped out in broken-in jeans and a short-sleeved checkered shirt, closer to the regular rural guy many South Dakotans fancy themselves to be. Now there’s an argument to be had about dressing for the job for which one is applying, but there’s enough polo shirt and blue jeanery going on among our Congressional candidates for that argument to make much of a difference.
These observations about the optics of Sutton’s and Bjorkman’s campaign kick-offs probably won’t amount to a hill of beans in determining whether they win on Election Day (lo! these many months from now). But they do suggest that, out of the gate, the Sutton campaign is more attuned to the press and perhaps the dynamics of intra-party politics. I don’t mean to say that tuning a good thing; I just mean to say that tuning is a thing.