This is probably the best news that South Dakota Democrats have had in a while.

Tim Bjorkman, a retired circuit court judge from Salem, will announce his candidacy for the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday.

The good news is that Bjorkman is actually a credible candidate.

I’ve got some advice for Bjorkman – not that he asked – as he prepares to launch his bid. More on that in a minute.

We don’t really know much about the former judge as of yet. He retired from the bench last month after 10 years of service. He lives in Salem and was once the city attorney in Canistota.

His early statements have focused on health care, tax fairness, the income divide and the state of rural America. It’s been noted that he’s not stressing the "D" affiliation in his materials.

The bar has gotten fairly low for Democrats in South Dakota in terms of attracting candidates. But there is some legitimate excitement this time around. That’s an indication that reasonable people see an opening to take the seat back from Republicans. There are a few reasons for that:

  • No incumbent. Our current congresswoman, Kristi Noem, is running for governor. Open seats don’t happen that often so you better take your best shot when it does.
  • Republicans have a serious brand issue going into the 2018 mid-term elections. The party of a president is always vulnerable in the first election after they take office. With the continuing scandals and lack of progress on a few big issues, it’s just going to be that much worse for the GOP.
  • The potential opponents. Secretary of State Shantel Krebs and former public utilities commissioner Dusty Johnson will face each other in the Republican Primary. Both are credible, solid candidates, but they’re not juggernauts either. That makes the hill a little smaller to climb for Dems.

Which is nothing more than Democratic blue sky at this point, just a little less daunting than a normal cycle.

You still need a focused message that resonates with middle class moderates. You need an experienced and savvy organization. You need access to at least a minimum amount of money. And you need to get rocking now.

If you’re a Democrat, you should take some comfort in the fact that Bjorkman is being advised, at least in informal sense, by elements of the old Tom Daschle/Tim Johnson coalition, which brought the party a generation of electoral success.

It’s hard to know how that will manifest in the day-to-day operations of a campaign. But at least Bjorkman knows people that know people who can actually get things done.

So maybe we’ll have an actual contested statewide campaign of substance for the first time in since Noem defeated then incumbent Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin.

If it was me – and thankfully for me, it’s not – I would suggest a few key issues to Mr. Bjorkman.

  • Health care. There’s not doubt this is going to be a key and much discussed topic during all the 2018 campaigns. I think the pivotal point for anybody running is to not get too complicated. I mean that not just a talking point, but in actual policy. One of the reasons that the Republican alternative, in my mind, is so bogged down is that nobody really understands what they are trying to do. If the American people don’t get it, they won’t back it. Which all may mean, go all in for some form of single payer. That may mean a system where you are guaranteed a minimum level of care – Medicare for all if you will – but if you want more extensive coverage you can buy an supplemental on the open market. Period. The people are ready for a clean plan.
  • Don’t talk about tax cuts – for anybody. It’s unrealistic and sets the rhetoric as a class war and South Dakotans generally don’t like that. Taxes are the thing that’s shackling families. It’s health care and wages.
  • Business and development are huge. But not the kind you think. Don’t align yourself with stodgy old white guys in suits. Think innovation and entrepreneurship. Unleash the potential of ambition and creativity inherent in is all. That means making education and retraining more accessible. It’s not necessarily college – which is great – but also intensive instruction in coding, finance and management for people who want to make their mark now. Give people regardless of station in the life the tools to find their own way and they will. Guaranteed.
  • Stodgy old white guys in suits. Don’t forget about those guys. You need them. But if they see your vision for growing an economy from the bottom up, they’ll be there with you. They need workers. They need customers. That’s what you can bring by empowering the techies, the new business owners and the ambitious young people who live here and want to stay here.
  • Keep the message focused and clear. Don’t be a wonk. And whatever you do, do not – EVER – get off message. I don’t care what’s happening around you. Do NOT take the bait. Watch clips of Kristi Noem from 2010. Say what you will about her policies, she was relentless in her message against Herseth Sandlin, and it worked.
  • Don’t be too rural. Most of your voters live in about 8 counties in Southeast South Dakota. Many have rural roots, and that’s fine, but many do not. There aren’t enough farmers and ranchers left in the state to win an election and you aren’t going to change many minds out there anyway.
  • Don’t get up in petty Trump bashing. It’s silly and demeaning. All you need to do is make reference to the current administration and the voters’ emotions will do the rest for you.

That’s what I got right now. Keep it clean. Don’t be afraid of who you are and work you hind end off.

Good luck and I look forward to the coming months to see how it plays out.


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