As tensions between the United States and China escalate, a congressman from South Dakota has edged into the national spotlight.
House leaders chose Republican Rep. Dusty Johnson in January to serve on the select committee on China – a panel of 24 members tasked with investigating China’s influence on the American economy, national security and human rights.
Johnson, who’s in the midst of his third two-year term, said “it’s fair to say” he was awarded the seat partly because of his work on the security of American agriculture. That’s something he’s been focused on since at least mid-2022, following a report that a Chinese company bought land near Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota.
But as that news faded, so did some of the public interest in China.
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However, after a large, white balloon from China entered American airspace earlier this year – just ahead of the select committee’s first hearing – Johnson, by virtue of his membership on the committee and his other efforts to counteract Chinese influence, found himself in demand as a guest on national networks such as NBC, NPR and FOX Business.
“I guess the balloon situation was helpful insofar as it kind of galvanized American attention – it focused attention that the Chinese are trying to surveil us,” Johnson told South Dakota Searchlight. “But the balloon is a tiny piece of a pattern of aggression that the Chinese Communist Party has had. It doesn’t even make the top 100 list.”
As the balloon has helped to focus attention on China, Johnson’s positioning on China has focused attention on him in a way that an expert said could be politically advantageous.
Politics and policy
Mike Card is an emeritus political science professor at the University of South Dakota. He said championing policies to counter China is politically popular – especially with conservatives.
In his reelection campaigns, Johnson has faced two consecutive primary challengers who claimed to be more conservative than him. The first of those challengers won 23 percent of the vote, and the second garnered 41 percent of the vote against Johnson last June.
Card said Johnson appears to be legitimately concerned about China’s influence, but also about further primary challenges.
“And he’s hit an issue that, for many South Dakotans, is a winner,” Card said.
Johnson speaks often about China in media appearances, press releases and on social media.
“I fear that too many Americans view the Chinese Communist Party as a threat over there when in reality it is a threat here,” Johnson told fellow members of the Select Committee on China on Feb. 28.
He describes China’s increasing holdings of farmland and agricultural processing facilities around the globe as “part of a grand strategy” to increase its influence.
In response, Johnson wants the U.S. to do some grand-scale strategizing of its own. He wants American companies to carefully uproot vital supply chains and trade routes from China, and replant them in nations less hostile to the U.S.
“It is something we want to be focused, thoughtful, and deliberate about as we work to strategically decouple from the Chinese Communist Party,” Johnson told the select committee
ohnson told South Dakota Searchlight that he should not be interpreted as “anti-trade with China.”
“This is not about pulling up the drawbridge and going full-on protectionist,” Johnson said. However, he is against allowing China to have “undue control over items that are critical to national security.”
“We need to pull our allies in the Indo-Pacific region closer,” Johnson said. “If we want to strengthen supply chains, that comes from diversity, making sure we have a lot of different places we can buy things from.”
Yet, Johnson has not supported every effort to counteract China. He voted against the CHIPS Act, which is intended to help the U.S. compete with other countries, particularly China, in the semiconductor industry and reduce reliance on foreign suppliers for critical components. The bill became law with President Biden’s signature in August, authorizing billions in funding to support semiconductor research, design and manufacturing in the U.S.
Johnson said he voted against the bill because the price tag was too high to support.
While churning out a steady flow of rhetoric about China, Johnson has also supported China-focused bills and policy proposals.
In mid-2020, he co-sponsored the PASS Act, which stands for “Promoting Agriculture Safeguards and Security.” The bill would prohibit China, Russia, Iran and North Korea from purchasing U.S. agricultural land and agricultural companies. He also co-sponsored the FARM Act, an acronym for Foreign Adversary Risk Management, in October 2021, adding language to the law to help protect the ag industry from foreign control.
Neither bill passed, but both have been reintroduced this year in the Senate.
Conservative vs. moderate
Johnson was sworn into the U.S. House of Representatives in January 2019 and joined the Problem Solvers Caucus soon after – a bipartisan group of representatives formed in 2017 with the goal of promoting bipartisanship and finding solutions to the country’s most pressing issues.
He also chairs the Republican Main Street Caucus, focused on economic growth. In a story about Johnson’s leadership of that group, the Capitol Hill publication Roll Call said Johnson “has positioned himself to be one of the GOP’s biggest wheeler-dealers on the Hill.”
When South Dakota Searchlight asked Johnson’s staffers for a list of his top legislative accomplishments, they replied with a spreadsheet of bills he has sponsored, introduced, or served as the lead Republican on.
Seventeen have been enacted – sometimes administratively, while others were signed into law. Additionally, Johnson was recently rated among the most effective representatives in his party by the Center for Effective Lawmaking. He also had the center’s highest rank among House Republicans on agricultural issues.
Despite those achievements, Mike Card said a policy-focused politician who is willing to compromise with Democrats as a member of the “Problem Solvers Caucus” is not what every Republican voter is looking for.
“He’s trying to brand himself as someone who solves problems,” Mike Card said. “That may cost him when there are so many people in the House of Representatives who want to shut the government down, rather than solve problems.”
Polling by South Dakota State University shows Johnson as the statewide politician with the highest percentage of positive feelings when the polling includes voters from across South Dakota’s political spectrum. When only Republican voters are included, his standing drops to third behind Gov. Kristi Noem and Sen. John Thune.
Nevertheless, Johnson has remained willing to call out what he sees as problems within his own party, including the tone of some political rhetoric.
“The allegation that you need to be angry or reflexive to be a true conservative is really out of line,” Johnson said. “I think conservatives are responsible and sensible.”
When Johnson took questions about his career recently during a visit to Wagner Community School, a student asked, “What was it like at the State of the Union?” Johnson said while he did not agree with a lot of what President Joe Biden said, he was also irritated with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, who “rather than react in a responsible way, she got up and started screaming at him.”
Comments like that tend to get Johnson branded as a middle-of-the-road politician, but Card said Johnson is a conservative.
“To call Dusty a moderate, give me a break,” Card said.
And Johnson is quick to defend his conservative credentials.
“South Dakotans understand that a guy who is A+ rated by Right to Life, A+ rated by the NRA, who has a conservative score from Heritage Action, more conservative than the average House Republican, that’s an actual conservative,” Johnson said.
He has voted for repealing the Affordable Care Act and restricting access to abortion, against codifying gay and interracial marriage protections, and in favor of mining for copper at the Boundary Waters in Minnesota. He recently introduced a bill that would add more work requirements for participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
And despite voting against then-President Donald Trump’s emergency border wall declaration, Johnson generally supported Trump as president – even attending a Fourth of July celebration at Mount Rushmore with Trump and other elected officials during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, although Johnson was the only elected official who wore a mask on the stage.
Next up for Dusty Johnson
State Rep. Will Mortenson, R-Pierre, is the majority leader of the state House and a friend of Johnson’s.
The two met while Mortenson was interning at the legislative session in Pierre in 2009. Mortenson said he saw a leader that he, as a young Republican, could get behind. The young intern was so inspired by Johnson that he asked him out to lunch and “told him to run for Congress.”
Mortenson said while Johnson is proudly not a member of any fringe element, “He is a deeply conservative policy thinker. He just takes a South Dakota approach.”
Johnson told the students in Wagner he has no interest in being president.
“There is no shame in being a great shortstop in AAA minor league ball,” Johnson said. “You want to have a good awareness of what your limitations are.”
Though, “that’s not to say I wouldn’t run for anything else,” he added.
Johnson is 46 years old, and both of South Dakota’s U.S. senators are in their 60s. Mike Rounds is rumored to have hinted at interest in working closer to home, and John Thune said during his most recent campaign that he considered retirement before deciding to seek reelection.
Mike Card said if one or both senators were to leave their positions, Johnson would be a top contender to replace them. And the Senate isn’t the only place Johnson could turn to.
“In three years, Governor Noem will not be Governor Noem anymore,” Card said, referencing the term limits that will force Noem out of office.
That’s an idea Mortenson likes.
“Dusty should be our next governor,” Mortenson said. “Our state would only be so lucky.”