|Senator Tim Johnson (Democrat)|
Johnson was born and bred in "The Mount Rushmore State." A fourth-generation
South Dakotan, Johnson is the son of a college professor father and a
homemaker mother. He grew up in the southeastern region of the state where
agricultural interests dominate.
He attended the University of South Dakota, graduating a member of Phi Beta Kappa before earning a Masters in political science and a law degree from the same school. After a brief stint working in Michigan as a budget analyst in the state Senate while his wife attended graduate school, Johnson returned to South Dakota in 1975 to start his law practice in Vermillion.
Within three years of his return, Johnson made a run for the state house in 1978. For the next eight years, Johnson worked in the House and then the state Senate before making a run for the U.S. House seat being vacated by then-Congressman Tom Daschle.
Johnson defeated Dale Bell, a 36-year-old steakhouse owner, 59 to 41 percent in his 1986 run for the House. Johnson, who had worked well with the popular GOP governor and had developed a moderate reputation, easily defeated Bell who ran on a red-meat platform, promising to fight beef imports and to block funding for any federal agency that discouraged consumption of red meat.
Once in Washington, Johnson built a slightly left-of-center record, breaking with his party on occasion to endorse the balanced budget amendment and later to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia. For the most part he focused on agriculture support and infrastructure projects deemed critical for the state's economic development.
In 1995, the four-term Congressman decided to make a bid for the Senate against Republican Sen. Larry Pressler. Pressler, who had built his career as a pragmatic, constituency-service politician, began to endorse more and more conservative ideas as he rose through the Senate's ranks. When the GOP took control of the Senate in 1994, Pressler was named the chairman of Senate Commerce Committee and given the task of deregulating the telecommunications industry. In South Dakota, Pressler promised his work would lead to lower phone and cable rates. But after the bill was signed, rates inched higher and Johnson blamed the new law.
Johnson, a Democrat who opposes abortion and had shown a willingness to cross party lines, portrayed himself as the moderate candidate and Pressler as a Newt Gingrich clone who had lost touch with his roots.
The campaign was a pricey one, especially for a state with low media costs. Pressler spent more than $5 million, mainly on advertising, while Johnson shelled out $3 million. In the end the election was close. In eastern South Dakota, Johnson swept most of the counties, but as the voting moved west into the rancher region, Pressler gained strength. In the end, Johnson edged out Pressler by 8,579 votes out of more than 324,000 cast.
His South Dakota colleague, the Senate's then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle, made sure Johnson landed on committees key to his future political success, including Agriculture, Banking, Budget and Indian Affairs.
Johnson developed a voting record that was generally liberal, except for issues like abortion which he has consistently opposed. He also endorsed a bill that would require federal prisoners to help pay for their healthcare if they have the financial resources.
As a member of the Appropriations Committee, Johnson delivered additional federal aid for agriculture and other projects deemed critical to his constituents, including transportation funding.
In 2002, Johnson continued to focus on issues like prescription drug coverage (he sponsored one of the major bills considered, but not enacted by the Senate) and targeting agriculture benefits to more small and mid-size farms. He also pushed for tax relief, proposing a scaled elimination of the so-called "marriage penalty" tax and voting for President Bush's $1.3 billion tax cut.
As he entered his reelection campaign, Johnson was the top target of the GOP, who are fighting to regain the seat lost when Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords left the Republican party. Despite his largely moderate record, his opponent, U.S. Rep. John Thune, as well as many independent groups, labeled Johnson a liberal.
More than a year ago, the Almanac of American Politics had already decided that 2002 "could be one of the country's most seriously contested Senate races, in one of its smallest states."
--By Lee Banville, Online NewsHour