Monae Johnson waits to welcome potential voters at an October 2022 meet-and-great in a Rapid City coffee shop, during her campaign to become South Dakota’s secretary of state. (Seth Tupper/SD Searchlight)
I was interviewing U.S. Sen. John Thune several years ago when he used a phrase I’d never heard in a political context.
He said rounding up votes in the Senate was like “nailing Jell-O to a tree.”
Lately, I’ve been thinking the same description applies to something else: interviewing Monae Johnson about the 2020 presidential election.
Johnson is a Republican who will become South Dakota’s top elections official if she wins the Nov. 8 race for secretary of state. She has dodged questions about the 2020 election in recent interviews, including with Keloland Media Group and South Dakota Public Broadcasting, and she did the same with me prior to the launch of South Dakota Searchlight.
I asked Johnson, “Do you think the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent?”
“That I don’t know,” she said. “I’m thinking here in South Dakota, President Trump won the election. But President Biden, he’s the one that won the nation, so he’s our president now. And for me, I wasn’t in office at the time. I wasn’t even in the Secretary of State’s Office. I want to move forward and bring that trust forward. The way to do that is more transparency.”
I followed up with a similar question.
“Do you think the election was stolen from Donald Trump?”
She paused before answering and then said, “I’m going to leave that question up to those people that are actually in the fight for it.”
I told her she could end up “in the fight” if she wins and Trump runs for president in two years.
“Well, that would be going forward,” she said. “So I don’t want to dwell on the 2020 election. I want to move forward to this one. And I know that’s what you all want, but I’m not going to answer it.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because then you guys will just peg me as an election denier,” Johnson said. “So I want to move forward.”
I asked her to clear the air. If she’s being “pegged” as an election denier, is that a fair characterization?
“No, I don’t think that’s fair to peg me as an election denier when integrity and transparency is what everyone wants,” she said. “That’s why I’m running.”
That I don’t know. I’m thinking here in South Dakota, President Trump won the election. But President Biden, he’s the one that won the nation, so he’s our president now. And for me, I wasn’t in office at the time. I wasn’t even in the Secretary of State’s Office. I want to move forward and bring that trust forward. The way to do that is more transparency.
– Monae Johnson, Republican nominee for secretary of state, on whether the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent
And so it went. Getting a direct answer on the 2020 election proved impossible. All the while, Johnson seemed unaware of the contradiction inherent in her own non-answers: She was touting her devotion to transparency, even as she refused to answer questions she didn’t like.
To be fair, Johnson did promise to work for other forms of transparency in the Secretary of State’s Office, including saying she would update the campaign-finance reporting system. She pledged to make campaign-finance records more searchable, as they are on the Federal Election Commission website and in some other states. South Dakota’s current campaign-finance system is stuck in the 1990s, displaying only individually scanned PDFs.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s Democratic opponent, Tom Cool, is struggling to bring attention to his long-shot campaign and his affirmation of the 2020 election as legitimate.
Since statehood in 1889, only four South Dakota secretaries of state have been members of the Democratic Party. The last one, who left office in 1979, was Lorna Herseth (the late grandmother of former congresswoman and current Augustana University President Stephanie Herseth Sandlin).
Lorna Herseth won her last re-election bid in 1974, and since then the state Democratic Party has shrunk by about 20,000 registered voters, while the South Dakota Republican Party has grown by about 100,000.
Cool therefore needs support from Republicans and independents to win. He told me that he’s heard from several notable Republicans who indicated they might vote for him, based on their concerns about Johnson.
“When I asked if they’d publicly endorse me, they said, ‘No, I can’t do that,’” Cool lamented.
Cool said he’s concerned about Johnson’s ability to impartially administer elections, based on her refusal to answer questions about the 2020 election.
But maybe South Dakotans should consider themselves lucky that Johnson merely sidesteps those questions. There are other Republican secretary of state candidates around the country who openly and flatly deny President Biden’s victory, despite all the failed lawsuits and audits that prove the result was valid.
Or, maybe we’re worse off than voters in those states. At least they know where their candidates stand. South Dakota voters are stuck wondering whether Johnson is hiding moderate views from extreme voters, or extreme views from moderate voters.
If Johnson truly values transparency, she should tell us what she really thinks about the last election. Until then, I guess journalists will have to keep hammering away at that Jell-O.
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