And the Senate Race Is On in South Dakota

by Stuart Rothenberg August 9, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

I have had an almost-finished column sitting on my desk since the end of June. It’s not that I couldn’t finish it. I just decided to put it on hold, indefinitely.

But the recent coverage of National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign’s (Nev.) statement that it’s time for Republicans to go after South Dakota Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson’s seat has caused me to defrost that piece.

Ensign’s comments, and the counterattack from Johnson’s spokeswoman, Julianne Fisher, actually were preceded by an editorial in the Rapid City Journal. The newspaper’s editorial board called for “more transparency” about Johnson’s condition and urged the Senator “to communicate directly with the media and the people of South Dakota.”

Last week, Roll Call reported that Ensign and the GOP were “no longer putting off mounting an aggressive campaign to unseat Sen. Tim Johnson.”

That announcement brought an unnecessary overreaction from Fisher, who called Ensign’s comments “a classless attack by a desperate chairman.”

“We don’t fear John Ensign and the national Republican hit men,” said Fisher, who apparently was taught that there is no need to use a match when a flamethrower is available.

“Classless.” “Desperate.” “Hit men.” My, my. I’m not sure which statement applies best: The lady doth protest too much, methinks, or, people who live in glass houses … .

Anyway, let’s all take a deep breath and start over.

I, too, have been concerned about the fact that we haven’t heard directly from Sen. Johnson himself.

We all know the Senator’s world changed on Dec. 13, 2006, when an aneurysm in his brain because of a congenital condition put his life, to say nothing of his political future, at risk. The next day, Johnson underwent brain surgery at The George Washington University Hospital in the nation’s capital.

Slowly, the two-term Democrat is trying to change his life back to something resembling what it was. But the process has been difficult.

The Senator’s family and staff never sugar-coated Johnson’s prospects, but they also allowed precious little information out about his condition. Starting in March, we started to see photographs of the Senator, and, increasingly, his office has released statements from him.

The most misleading information to come out of the whole story probably came from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who, the day after surgery was performed on Johnson, said he had seen his colleague and “he looked great.”

“Mr. Reid declined to say whether he believed Mr. Johnson looked well enough to be able to return to the Senate, saying that anything he said would only raise more questions among reporters. ‘To me,’ [Reid] said, ‘he looked very good,’” according to a New York Times piece.

We now know the idea that Johnson might have looked well enough to return to the Senate some 24 hours after surgery was ridiculous. And while the South Dakota Democrat may have looked “great” to Reid, it’s hard to believe that most people would have described Johnson that way, since he apparently needed a full-time ventilator, had significant damage to the right side of his body and was in critical condition for weeks after the surgery.

Everything is relative, of course, and I’m not suggesting that Reid intended to be misleading. But it is clear that Johnson was not in great shape then. In fact, some close to Johnson were less than happy at Reid’s overly optimistic statements, believing they didn’t accurately reflect Johnson’s state at that time.

In mid-March, Johnson’s office released four photographs of the Senator. In a Rapid City Journal piece that included one of the photographs, staff writer Bill Harlan noted that “Johnson has not spoken to reporters” and that the Senator was recovering “at an undisclosed health-care facility” because “the family wanted Johnson to have privacy.”

Two of the photographs showed Johnson with a newspaper (one with his wife). Two others showed him outside with his wife and daughter.

Given the lack of contact between the Senator and reporters, the photographs easily could have been interpreted as an effort by his family to show that things were returning to normal for him. But, in fact, things were still a long way from normal for Johnson.

The heavily staged shots made it easy to disguise the fact that his right side continued to be very weak and his speaking skills were a far cry from what they had been before the aneurysm. Johnson, of course, was under no obligation to call attention to his physical limitations at that time.

On May 16, Johnson’s office posted a photograph of him standing with a physical therapist that presented a fuller picture of his condition.

Democrats close to the Senator told me in June that they wanted to wait until Johnson’s speech is virtually back to normal before re-introducing him to South Dakota voters and the national media. Their fear is that, while his cognitive abilities are back, a verbal stumble or two by the Senator would create a buzz about his abilities and create a media frenzy.

When I first heard the explanation, I was skeptical. Just put him in front of a camera with a fair reporter or even talking to camera so people can see and hear him, I thought. Virtually everyone will be sympathetic, knowing he has been fighting his way back from a serious medical problem. But the more I thought about it, the more I started to wonder if my initial reaction was wrong.

More and more journalists seem to be after controversy, and the prospect of dozens of know-nothing talking heads with titles such as “Republican strategist” and “Democratic strategist” pontificating on television about a subject they know little about got me to wonder if keeping Johnson out of the public eye until he was more fully recovered wasn’t the right thing.

But after the Rapid City Journal editorial, the Ensign comment and the Fisher reaction, I, too, think Johnson needs to come forward, at least by the time the Senate returns after Labor Day.

More than anything else, Fisher’s comments changed my mind. She came out of the gate like an attack dog in responding to a comment by Ensign that was both reasonable and probably unwise.

Her response reflected the current campaign mentality of attack, attack, attack. Combine that with the fact that the Johnson campaign has raised more than $1.2 million since his medical emergency, and it is hard not to conclude that the Senator or at least his friends want to be able to do political things while at the same time keeping Republicans from acting the same way.

Johnson ought not get a free pass this election anymore than any other Member of Congress who has had great personal misfortune should. The question now, as it should be next year, is whether Tim Johnson can do the job and whether he is representing his constituents effectively and as they wish.

Johnson can do part of his job from his home in Virginia but not all of it. I’m told he can get around and that his speaking is improving. He needs to return to public life if he is physically able to do so. And if he isn’t, his office needs to explain, and show, why he isn’t.

We all know the Senator has been through a terrible time. I don’t think anyone is expecting to see the same man we saw last year. But if he is raising cash, and if his staff is attacking the NRSC chairman because he said Republicans are going to try to defeat Johnson next year, the game is on.

Personally, I think Ensign was mistaken to bring up the South Dakota seat now. Why not wait until September, when the Senate has been back for a few days, to note that the campaign season has begun everywhere, even in South Dakota?

I strongly doubt Republicans can knock off Johnson next year if he comes back looking and sounding capable enough to do his job. But until we see Johnson, who knows?