South Dakota’s ‘Odd Couple’

South Dakota Sens. Tim Johnson and John Thune are the second oddest couple in the Senate, according a story in The National Journal.

The Journal piece is titled “The Oddest Pairings of Senators by State.” It ranked Johnson, a moderate Democrat, and Thune, a moderate to conservative Republican, as the runners-up to Wisconsin’s unlikely duo of Democrat Herb Kohl, an unabashed liberal, and Ron Johnson, a proud conservative.

The story doesn’t even mention the fact that Johnson edged Thune for the Senate seat in 2002. That was a tough, at times bitter campaign, and some Republicans still feel Thune was robbed by the Democrats when late returns from precincts on Indian reservations gave Johnson a second term.

But Thune landed in the Senate two years later when he knocked Tom Daschle off his high perch as Democratic leader. Since that time, Thune and Johnson have apparently worked well on issues that impact the state, and when I have seen them together, they were more than cordial.

The National Journal also offers a ranking on how liberal each senator is. Johnson is ranked 22nd, while Thune is ranked 79th.

So, “The Odd Couple,” eh? I wonder which one’s Oscar, and which one’s Felix?

Gabby Giffords’ brave pledge

While the star speeches at the Democratic National Convention grabbed headlines and dominated TV coverage, another, smaller moment at the DNC moved people to both tears and cheers.

Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who was shot through the head by a crazed man in January 2011, recited the Pledge of Allegiance at the opening of Thursday night’s session. It was truly an emotional moment as Giffords, assisted by DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, slowly made her way across the wide stage.

As she spoke the words of the pledge, with her brain injuries still so clearly on display, she wore a wide, bright smile. I choked up, and if anyone else who was watching didn’t, well, they need to add some empathy.

Two prominent South Dakota Democrats who weren’t at the convention had to be especially touched by Gifford’s gallant performance.

Sen. Tim Johnson suffered a less violent but still damaging brain injury in December 2006. Johnson recovered enough to continue to serve in the Senate, winning a third term in 2008.

His speech, once clear and clever, is now slowed and slurred, and while he needs a wheelchair, a walker and assistance to move about, he keeps working in DC and SD. His sparkling, bright eyes reveal the passion and intelligence still evident, still deeply involved in the nation’s governance. I think he’s running in 2014.

Former Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin is a good friend of Giffords. I recall speaking to her in the hours after that horrific shooting in a Tucson mall parking lot, and the tears and emotions she was unafraid to share as she spoke of her friend.

Herseth Sandlin soon was at Giffords’ side at a treatment facility and has continued to be supportive of her former House colleague.

Giffords, determined to recover as much of her past life as possible, resigned from the House but plans to continue to play a public role in issues she believes in. She is one brave, strong woman.

SHS told me via email this week she is paying scant attention to politics now as she focuses on her new job and getting her “kiddo” into  preschool.

Giffords was forced to the sideline by a crazed man with a gun. Herseth Sandlin lost a close election in 2010 and is still considering her political, personal and professional future. At 41, I expect we will see her name on a ballot again. If TJ doesn’t run in 2014, maybe that will mark her return.

Sen. Johnson has yet to announce his intentions. He is, quietly, the most successful politician in state history, winning every race in his career, either for the Legislature, Congress or the Senate.

Johnson has served more than 26 years in Congress and has two years left in this term. He has overcome the odds to become the dean of the delegation.

Johnson understands what Gifford has overcome. More than most, he can appreciate and admire her efforts.

All of us, however, can cheer her on. Go, Gabby!

Varilek’s strong start

Matt Varilek is looking good in the opening weeks of the race for the 2012 Democratic nomination for South Dakota’s lone House seat.

Varilek says he has raised more than $100,000, collected the endorsement of his former boss, Sen. Tim Johnson (which is not a surprise) and is touring the state making appearances and friends.

The former economic development director to Johnson is making his first bid for elective office. He wants to take on first-term Rep. Kristi Noem, a Republican from Castlewood.

Varilek’s odds for the nomination will grow if former Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin stays out of the 2012 campaign. So far, SHS has made no effort to run, disbanding her political organization and making few public appearances.

In an e-mail exchange I had with her this week, she said she has been busy traveling and spending time with family while also battling “nasty colds.” That sounds like a young mother dealing with a 3-year-old son, not a veteran politician gearing up for a run at a return to Congress.

We will soon see. Herseth Sandlin told me she will make a “final” announcement soon.

It may be very good news for Matt Varilek, or it could mean he’s in for a tough run for the party’s nomination. And fellow candidate Jeff Barth has dropped his earlier pledge to get out of the race if SHS jumps back in.

Barth, a Minnehaha County commissioner, doesn’t have the money nor does he have the backing of the most powerful Democrat in the state. But he is a proven candidate, having won a pair of elections in South Dakota’s biggest county.

Varilek and Barth shared the spotlight in Tyndall Thursday night, where they met with voters at an “old-fashioned Christmas party” hosted by state Rep. Frank Kloucek. It was an opportunity for Barth to be at the same level as Varilek as they compete for a chance to run against Noem.

They will likely stage a lively two-man race this winter and spring, unless SHS decides she wants a rematch, which seems unlikely. But we will soon know a lot more.

Ben Nelson’s decision

Sen. Ben Nelson is walking away instead of being carried out on his shield.

Nelson, a conservative Democrat from Nebraska, announced Tuesday that he will not seek a third term. Since Nebraska has tilted more to the right and to the GOP in recent years, it’s not a surprising decision, even with Nelson’s drift to the right.

I worked for pair of Nebraska newspapers in 2009-2010 and covered Nelson. I attended a public forum he declined to attend and another tightly controlled event where he did show up.

At the outdoor rally, he was widely denounced by insurgents from the fledgling Tea Party movement. At the event he hosted at a community college, people and questions were carefully screened. It was oppressive and revealing.

Nelson, a former insurance company executive who became governor before moving to the Senate, knew he faced an uphill climb in Nebraska, especially after the infamous Cornhusker Compromise, or, Cornhusker Kickback, as some called it in 2009. Nelson tried to make an old-fashioned deal to benefit his state — and his career — and failed on the national stage.

Since Nebraska is more and more conservative, like South Dakota with few promising young Democrats, it seems Nelson’s retirement will add a GOP seat in the Senate.

Is this a choice Sen. Tim Johnson, who is very similar to Nelson in many ways, will make in 2014?