Our three Republican candidates for U.S. House debated on South Dakota Public Television last night. (I know, the formal name is Broadcasting, but distinguishing Television from Radio specifies format and feels cooler.) The event made clear that Dusty Johnson and Shantel Krebs view each other as the only threats to each’s chances of primary victory and that they are right to ignore Neal Tapio’s pale imitation of Donald Trump.
Let’s dismiss Tapio right away. From the start, Tapio has branded himself as Trump’s guy. He touts his supposed position as Trump’s South Dakota campaign director in 2016, in which position he appears to have done little of substance other than to take a check from Team Trump. To imitate Trump’s Twitter handle, Tapio rebranded himself @realnealtapio this March. And like Trump, Tapio regularly tosses out radical claims that are hard-to-prove if not outright false—last night’s biggies: blaming the Parkland school shootings on criminal justice reforms like South Dakota’s 2013 Senate Bill 70, almost every school shooter being on drugs, and half of high school kids are on marijuana.
What Tapio fails to grasp and execute in this cheap karaoke is that it works for Trump because Trump sells it. Trump blasts his exaggerations and lies and appeals to the gut at full force, without apology or shame. He makes stuff up and spits in your eye. Trump’s tactics are appalling, but he uses them to make himself the center of attention and to get everyone, including his debate opponents, talking about him.
Where Trump brawls, Tapio whines. Tapio stumbles into his responses (“Uh, sure, uh…” he opened on a trade question later in the debate, as if struggling and failing to think of a way to make tariffs sound like they’d be good for South Dakota, then defaulting to “President Trump will take care of us”) and builds to, at best, a plaintive wail rather than a rallying rage. He’s George McFly trying to use his hipper time-traveling son’s crappy pick-up lines but blowing the delivery. Neal Tapio, yes, you are South Dakota’s density.
Krebs and Johnson both played Lorraine, mostly ignoring George/Tapio and keeping their starry eyes on each other. Johnson acknowledged two of Tapio’s points. Johnson agreed that EB-5 and GEAR UP were terrible examples of corruption, but he emphasized that they were federal screw-ups (no South Dakota Rounds/Daugaard Republican will ever accept blame for either scandal or tolerate any candidate, Democrat or Tapiocan, who tries to assign such blame locally), and he omitted mention of the refugee resettlement program, which Tapio falsely tried to equate to EB-5 and GEAR UP as a center of costly, deadly corruption. Johnson picked up another Tapio point on prescription drugs, agreeing that the U.S. effectively subsidizes lower drug prices in Canada and Europe by not dickering for better deals.
But other than those two points, Johnson and Krebs would have had the same debate if Tapio hadn’t been stage left (left! ha ha ha, Neal!). Krebs delivered her poised, practiced, sultrily mellow responses, while Johnson leaned into the mic and the camera more, with the intensity of the real policy debater who knows there are minds to change, arguments to win, and policy to make that could improve the lives of millions of Americans and that those things are worth getting excited about.
On policy, Johnson and Krebs suggested little differences. Where Johnson responded to a question on school shootings by immediately declaring his NRA membership, deemed rules and regulations useless, and called for a “healthier society,” Krebs encouraged more surveillance for suspicious characters (did you hear that, attack PACs?), timely reporting of background checks, and schools built like firetraps. Krebs spotlighted Trump’s plan to solve workforce issues with apprenticeships (translation: cheap non-unionized labor), while Johnson spotlighted getting kids better prepared for career choices in high school (translation: cheap non-unionized youth labor).
But we know that the Republican nominee for South Dakota’s lone U.S. House seat will advocate block grants for Medicaid (Krebs said it last night; Johnson said it here in Aberdeen last month). The nominee will push job training over solid university liberal arts education (because—the subtext of all three candidates’ comments on higher education—dang it, all you kids are taking useless degrees from those layabout liberal professors that don’t get you jobs and make money). The nominee will support work requirements on welfare recipients (translation: cheap non-unionized forced labor).
Overall, Johnson made the strongest presentation, occasionally advancing beyond Republican slogan bursts to offer relevant personal details and policy insights. He complained about paying $1,400 for COBRA coverage since leaving his job to run for office. He said Kristi Noem told him (yes, yes, have your debate about Noem as a reliable source) that only 36 members of Congress come from predominantly rural areas, and that it is thus all the more important that South Dakota elect someone like him who understands how all the pieces of the rural economy fit together and whose #1 committee desire is House Ag.
Johnson also distinguished himself in responding to a tricky question about whether he would support a trade plan that boosted U.S. exports as a whole but reduced South Dakota exports. The question was a clear effort to draw the candidates out the threat of tariffs from China on South Dakota soybeans and other agricultural products triggered by Trump’s heedless tariff bleatings. While Tapio and Krebs did not answer the question (Tapio said no such thing would ever happen; Krebs retreated to trade talking points) Johnson said that a South Dakota Representative must fight any policy that reduces our export options. He said dueling tariffs would have a big impact on South Dakota Main Street business. Showing his ability to twist the GOP slogan knife to his advantage against Trumpism, Johnson said both sides are better off when we make trade deals and that we “need to be nervous” when government gets involved too much in trade.
The most remarkable sign that Johnson and Krebs are focused on each other in what they apparently perceive as a tight two-way race with Tapio as a non-factor was that they attacked each other directly. Johnson opened the attack in the first question, on what it means to be a Republican, by accusing Krebs of voting to raise 200 taxes. An out-of-state PAC has been mailing cards accusing Krebs of voting for tax hikes, but my assumption was that such somewhat exaggerated attacks had to be coming from someone backing Tapio. But as I hear Johnson launch this identical attack, it strikes me as only logical that he would press an advantage that Krebs can’t: Johnson never served in the Legislature, so Krebs can’t dig through his voting record.
But she can! In her rebuttal on that same question, Krebs charged Johnson with voting as public utilities commissioner to raise utility rates on consumers five times. Then in her closing remarks, Krebs fired two more attacks. She attacked Johnson for quitting the PUC right after getting reëlected in 2010 so he could be Governor Daugaard’s chief of staff. Then she accused Johnson of using the state plane for personal use. She drew last speaker position, so Johnson got no chance to respond on air. (Johnson tells the press today, “To my recollection, every one of those trips was a business trip and had other state employees on the plane…, maybe not the leg itself, but every trip had other state employees and we were going to do state work in towns across South Dakota“… which sounds fishy and worth Krebs’s while to keep whacking.)
Neal Tapio can jump in a creek; I’m glad to see Johnson and Krebs apparently telling him the same with their focus on each other. But their strong attacks on each other suggest that they are campaigning as if the contest between the two of them for plurality on primary day is closer than I might have thought.
I like Dusty and Shantel as fellow South Dakotans. I’ve had friendly conversations with each of them, and each has provided me helpful guidance and assistance in their positions as elected officials. I feel I can fairly say that, while both Johnson and Krebs presented themselves reasonably well last night, Johnson conveyed a greater depth of knowledge and experience on policy matters and does so with more relevance to the questions posed and more of the zip that I like in my political leaders. That said, neither said anything last night that makes me want to jump ship from Democrat Tim Bjorkman and put faith in any possible Republican nominee to break from the bad Trumpist course down which our spineless Republican Party is leading our state and our nation.
Bonus illogic of the night:
- Neal Tapio said that “liberal” insurance companies have prevented more schools from adopting the school gunslinger program. Translation: opposing guns in schools for any reason, even practical liability reasons or advice from law enforcement, is part of a vast liberal conspiracy.
- Shantel Krebs said Dusty Johnson’s support for the Second Amendment is dubious because Governor Dennis Daugaard vetoed the no-permit concealed-carry bill in 2017 and then endorsed Johnson. Translation: Dusty Johnson and Matt Michels both worked for Daugaard. Michels has a mustache. Ergo, Dusty Johnson will grow a mustache… which would be awesome!!!