Republicans force the issue on apparently safe Johnson

A firestorm of activity surrounding the potential entry of former South Dakota Lt. Gov. Steve Kirby (R) into that state’s Senate race has caused local politicians and observers to re-evaluate just how vulnerable Sen. Tim JohnsonTimothy (Tim) Peter JohnsonTrump faces tough path to Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac overhaul Several hurt when truck runs into minimum wage protesters in Michigan Senate GOP rejects Trump’s call to go big on gun legislation MORE (D-S.D.) is this year.

Kirby has not even declared himself in the race, yet Democrats have already released polling numbers suggesting Johnson’s dominance, attacked Kirby on a website and in a fundraising e-mail, and questioned the prospective candidate’s actual appeal to GOP leaders.

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Almost every measure of a candidate’s vulnerability shows Johnson, who survived a race against then-Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.) in 2002 by the narrowest of margins, as one of the most unlikely senators to lose reelection this year.

The one area where he is weak is with his health — Johnson is still recovering from a life-threatening brain hemorrhage suffered in December 2006 — and a hard-fought campaign could test that.

GOPers have questioned the Democrats’ reaction to Kirby, saying it shows just how concerned they are about having to put Johnson up against a serious opponent.

“I don’t think anybody would have expected Sen. Johnson and his campaign staff to come out in the manner in which they did against an individual,” state Republican Party Chairman Karl Adam said. “What it tells me is they also sense that perhaps his voting record has caught up with him, that other things may have caught up with him.”

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) released a poll Friday showing Johnson leading Kirby 70-19, and it’s not just the head-to-head match-up, either: Johnson has one of the highest approval ratings in the Senate these days, with seven in 10 constituents giving him the thumbs-up, according to multiple polls.

Johnson has always been popular in a conservative state.

The hemorrhage occurred just one month into a cycle in which Johnson was seen as one of the two or three most vulnerable Democratic senators up for reelection. Since then, Republicans have struggled to find a major candidate willing to challenge him, as candidates including Gov. Mike Rounds (R) have passed on the race.

Kirby is expected to decide very soon whether he will fill that void.

If nothing else, the wealthy Republican would force Democrats to divert money that could otherwise be used on the many seats they are trying to add to their majority. Kirby self-funded $2.6 million in a gubernatorial primary run in 2002 and could spend even more on a Senate bid.

DSCC spokesman Matthew Miller said the committee’s poll speaks volumes about Johnson’s reelection chances.{mospagebreak}

“Sometimes you see a potential candidate with a 15-point deficit that they can make up because they’re not [yet] well-known. In Kirby’s case, he actually is well-known,” Miller said. “Despite that, he trails by not 20, not 30, not 40, but 50 points.”

Even with their outward confidence, national Democrats struck Kirby early, publishing a website labeling him the GOP’s “10th choice” and haranguing him for being a dirty campaigner and an ethically challenged businessman.

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Johnson’s campaign even issued a fundraising plea to donors to “Fight Kirby’s Millions,” which took aim at Kirby’s prospective candidacy: “Steve Kirby cares little that home foreclosures are growing, while incomes are not; that healthcare costs are skyrocketing while 47 million Americans lack health insurance,” it says, adding, “Tim Johnson does care.”

After the state GOP denounced the pre-emptive attacks, Johnson asked that the DSCC take down the anti-Kirby website.

Adam said the over-the-top reaction to Kirby shows that Johnson and the Democrats are taking the situation seriously and feel threatened.

He said polling would shift when voters are reminded about Johnson’s voting record, which Adam contended was too liberal for the state.

A GOP source with close knowledge of South Dakota politics said a candidate like Kirby would force Johnson to campaign actively.

Despite delivering a speech upon his return to the Senate and gradually becoming more public, Johnson still hasn’t had as much of a public presence since his injury.

“I can’t imagine, if Steve Kirby gets in this race and sews up the Republican nomination, Tim Johnson being able to debate him and being able to campaign as vigorously,” the source said. “That’s a very interesting juxtaposition when you have them on the stage together, and the Democrats realize that.”

Republicans and observers also feel that the strong reaction to Kirby potentially entering the race has, to some degree, lifted the moratorium on campaigning against Johnson.

But University of South Dakota political scientist Bill Richardson said it’s still a very risky proposition.

“How do you get a hook into the senator himself without causing people to be offended?” Richardson said. “That Teflon-coating will be difficult for Republicans to overcome.”

Two GOPers, state Rep. Joel Dykstra and businessman Sam Kephart, are already in the race, but neither has raised much money to this point.