MISSION, S.D. ? South Dakota's congressional races are heating up as candidates maneuver for the June 4 primary.
The two front runners in the crucial Senate race, incumbent Democrat Tim Johnson and U.S. Rep. John Thune, R-Murdo, have been embroiled in a bitter battle over campaign ads and out-of-state campaign contributions. The race, one of the closest in the nation, could decide which party controls the U. S. Senate for the next two years.
Thune has kept a low profile in Indian country but Johnson, whose 1996 victory against then Republican incumbent Sen. Larry Pressler was won with the Native vote, is making appearances on the South Dakota reservations.
Rosebud Sioux Tribal Chairman William Kindle gave Johnson an official endorsement March 27 during a rally held at the Sinte Gleska University Multipurpose Building. Several hundred potential voters gathered to listen to Johnson as he outlined the need for representation on crucial committees that impact budgets and national policies affecting tribal members.
SGU President Lionel Bordeaux told the listeners that Johnson was needed on the key committees because Republicans are hungry for the seat. Many in the audience signed up to vote for the first time or hadn't registered in many years for a national election.
"How well Sen. Johnson does depends on how many people show up at the polls. We are very fortunate to have such a dynamic duo," Bordeaux said referring to Johnson and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.
"It is really vital we have somebody on those committees to get the funding vital to Rosebud," said Chairman Kindle. "We're going to support him in every way."
After serving five terms in Congress and one term in the Senate, Johnson said his experience and his seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, is vital.
"This is the first time in a very, very long time that our state has had a seat on the appropriations committee. South Dakota's priorities are now the nation's priorities," he said. "We have the Senate majority leader from South Dakota and a senator on this committee. We've only had this power for only a year. I think we need to keep the team that's been incredibly powerful for this state. We want to create a circumstance where the tribal vote is never ever again taken for granted."
Newly registered voters at the SGU multipurpose building said the race has reignited their interest.
Shirley Eagle Feather of Mission said she hadn't voted in more than a decade. A full-time student at SGU and grandmother from the Rosebud reservation, she said she wanted to get involved for the future of her children and her grandchildren.
"I'm going to vote for Johnson. His presence is important for Indian issues. He makes a difference for us," said Eagle Feather.
Rachel Brugier, 20, a single mother who stopped at the voter registration table, said it was the first time she had registered to vote.
She stood watching over her five-week-old son Zane as a parade of tribal leaders prepared to give Johnson their endorsement.
"I just thought I would come and see Tim Johnson. I really wasn't interested until now," she said.
Brugier, who is looking for a better life for her and her young son, sees education, economic development and health care as the most pressing issues.
Unsure of whom she will vote for when the June primary arrives, Brugier said she is waiting for the candidates to talk about the issues and will weigh her decision based on their message.
Like many first time voters on the reservation, it was her first chance to see a national candidate. She said her vote is more likely to be swayed by a candidate who makes an effort to talk to people on the reservation rather than conduct a campaign on television.
Johnson made a sweep across the state including Rosebud while Thune campaigned with President George W. Bush in Sioux Falls, one of the state's Republican strongholds.
Not all tribal leaders have been easily swayed. Oglala Sioux Tribal Chairman John Steele said he wasn't ready to give Johnson his endorsement. Steele said he didn't feel Johnson is adequately protecting treaty rights and tribal sovereignty.
Meanwhile a herd of Republicans is pursuing the other congressional seat up for grabs. The race for the U. S. House of Representatives includes two men with name recognition, Gov. Bill Janklow and former U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler. School and Public Lands Commissioner Tim Amdahl of Flandreau and former state Rep. Roger Hunt of Brandon are also making a run for the seat.
Amdahl, traveling in a 1989 motor home painted with his campaign logo, is hitting Main Streets and sale barns, hoping to pull support from the state's rural areas.
Janklow has focused on appearances with Republican Senate candidate John Thune and President Bush.
Democrats who formally have announced their candidacies for the House seat are Dick Casey, a lawyer from Madison, Stephanie Herseth of Aberdeen, granddaughter of a former governor, Denny Pierson of Sioux Falls and Rick Weiland of Sioux Falls.
State Treasurer Dick Butler recently bowed out of the race.
Native voters will also be closely watching the governor's race. Republicans Steve Kirby, a Sioux Falls businessman married into the Wall Drug fortune, and State Attorney General Mark Barnett have been on television for weeks. Several other candidates are also in the primary.
State Sen. Ron Volesky, D-Huron, the sole Native American candidate for the governor's seat, is working crowds and speaking in sale barns and at every gathering where he can find an audience. Money has been an issue for the state's Democratic hopefuls. They are looking for small campaign contributions to compete against the war chests the Republicans have already been spending for name recognition on television. Volesky is up against former SDSU President Jim Abbott and State Democratic Leader Jim Hutmacher of Oacoma.
Volesky, originally from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, held a fund-raiser recently to auction off a painting donated by Dale Iron Cloud. It sold for $400 at the Magness Livestock Auction in Huron.