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Politics

Woster: Democratic U.S. Senate candidate a big man with a bigger campaign challenge

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Brian Bengs

This interview is from SDPB's daily public-affairs show, In the Moment, hosted by Lori Walsh.

He had me at VA.

Well, he also kinda had me at “I’m big. I’m bald. I’m bold. And I’m here to build bridges for South Dakota.”

No question about the big — he’s 6'8" — or the bald. And you have to be kind of bold to run as a Democrat against three-term Republican U.S. Sen. John Thune in a state where Republicans outnumber Democrats in registered voters 280,955 to 152,182.

More on the 'B's in a minute. For now, back to the VA. And a candidate for the U.S. Senate named Brian Bengs.

I’d never heard of Bengs — pronounced Bangs — early last week. Then I got a text from a friend who included a link to a Bengs for U.S. Senate page and this statement:

“As a taxpayer & veteran who actually receives health care through the VA, I support the comprehensive strategic review of VA infrastructure and assets to modernize, realign and close facilities as specified in Title II of the Mission Act of 2018.”
I didn’t have a clear idea of what the Mission Act was then. But I did know that the VA issue matters a lot. It has been the subject of big fights here in the Black Hills about past recommendations by VA officials to close most of the existing VA facilities in Hot Springs.

That idea is a political hot potato that South Dakota politicians have been tossing back and forth for years.

So I went to the Bengs for U.S. Senate Facebook page and found this statement from Bengs, a Navy and Air Force veteran:

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“ I get great care through Aberdeen’s VA clinic despite the nearest VA hospital being in Fargo or Sioux Falls. If replacing VA hospitals in Hot Springs and Sturgis with new clinics and a new Rapid City hospital is the best use of limited resources it should be done.”

Supporting or even implying possible support for the idea of closing most of the remaining VA complex in Hot Springs and possibly also at Fort Meade near Sturgis is contrary to what Republican officeholders from John Thune to Kristi Noem have supported in recent years.

And it’s apparently dangerous politically, given how consistently and even passionately they give their support to organized efforts in Hot Springs to save existing facilities, despite past VA research indicating they should be closed. They are old and outdated and expensive to operate, as well as being located away from Rapid City, and its immediate environs, which is where the overwhelming majority of veterans in the Black Hills live.

That’s particularly true of Hot Springs, a lovely southern Black Hills down along the picturesque Fall River that is about an hour by road from Rapid City.

I reached out to Bengs by way of a Twitter message and set up a phone interview, during which we talked more about the VA reference that had captured my attention.

As a vet and VA user, Bengs speaks with a voice of authority

Bengs says it only makes sense to consider facility closures and other options that might make VA care more efficient and responsive to veterans’ needs. His military service and status as a veteran give him an edge in understanding there, he says, as well as a platform from which to speak freely.

“I think when people have been in the military, we have a level of freedom to do things and consider things that non-veterans don’t have,” Bengs says. “Pleasing the military is the popular things for politicians to do. And when you haven’t ever served yourself, the easiest way is to say ‘OK, fund this and fund that.’ And that might be the right answer. But at other times, it might not be.”

A native of Burt, Iowa, a town of about 500 in the northern part of the state, Bengs enlisted in the Navy when he was 17 and turned 18 when he was in basic training. He served two years of active duty and then served in the reserves, going to college on the GI bill and moving on to law school.

After he passed the Bar Exam, Bengs joined the U.S. Air Force.

“I signed up thinking four years and it turned into 19 years,” he says. “I saw so many cool places and did so many cool thing. Then Sept. 11 was a big motivator for me to stick around and do something productive in the military as well.”

The productive work included serving in the Air Force’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps putting his legal training and law degree to work. After he retired from the Air Force in 2016, he tough criminal justice at Northern State University in Aberdeen, resigning his position in 2020.

Bengs said he gets health care through a VA clinic in Aberdeen. And the fact that the nearest VA hospitals are in Sioux Falls and Fargo, N.D. isn’t a problem for him.

“I get great care (from the VA( here. And if there’s an emergency issue, they’ll send me to the local hospital,” Bengs says. “If I say I don’t want to drive three hours to one of the VA hospitals, they just send me here.”

In terms of older VA facilities like those in Hot Springs, Bengs said: “Building a new clinic rather than trying to maintain something old that costs more and doesn’t serve veterans as well as in the past] probably make sense.”

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Building a campaign team for formidable challenge ahead

Bengs says he looks forward to discussing that issue in the campaign, along with many others. Now his campaign relies mainly on volunteer staff, some of whom will transition to paid staff when his raises enough money. And he has plenty of that to raise.

That brings up another big “B.” He has a big fundraising goal of $10 million for the campaign, which I suggested is a pretty lofty goal for a first-time politician running against an experience, well-funded incumbent.

“It is, but there has been robust fundraising for Democrats over the last election cycle, Bengs says. “I don’t think I can raise $10 million in state. I’ll need help from out of state, too.”

Probably a lot of it.

The 61-year-old Thune had about $15 million in campaign funds to start the year, along with the ability to raise plenty more.

While we were speaking of lofty goals, I asked the 51-year-old Bengs, who is married and the father of two teenage girls, how he would deal with the 130,000 edge Republicans have in registered voters in South Dakota. Not surprisingly, he said he would look for a coalition of support from Democrats and independents.

“If you look at the demographics, I think voter registration is about 48 percent Republican, 28 percent Democrat and 25 to 26 percent independents with a smattering of Libertarians and others,” he said. “The path is obviously going to be through independents, to build a coalition that pulls them heavily my way, and maybe some Republicans, because of the unique situation we’re in.”

Unique situation? Bengs says that’s Jan. 6, 2021, and the attack on the U.S. Capitol. The insurrection was fomented by outgoing President Donald Trump and some of his supporters through false claims that Joe Biden stole the November, 2020 presidential election.

“I would point to the Jan. 6 incident. He (Thune) described it as a “very unfortunate display.” But he’s riding the fence on this and not really taking a stand. Even Sen. Rounds has taken a stand on this, and John Thune has not. He seems to be kind of against it and kind of for it, depending on who he talks to.”

To be fair on that point, Thune also has been pretty clear that the Capitol attack was wrong. He noted a few days after the Jan. 6 insurrection that Trump’s rhetoric likely contributed to the Capitol attack. Thune also said then that the actions of those who stormed the Capitol amounted to ‘thuggery” and said that the attack was “Inexcusable.”

Thune also said then: "I hope that the types of people who stormed the Capitol today get a clear message that they will not stop our democracy from moving forward.”

While acknowledging that all the states “did everything they were supposed to do in accordance with the law” to make sure the election was valid, Thune also said he supported a full investigation into any reports of voting irregularities.

Such investigations have failed to show anything significant.

And overall, Thune’s criticisms of the attack on the Capitol have been few, far between, carefully measured and usually in response to reporter’s questioning.

With leadership comes greater responsibility to speak out

I suggested to Bengs that Thune’s leadership role with the GOP in the Senate — No. 2 behind Mitch McConnell — puts him in a different spot than Rounds is in in terms of frank statements in a party that now belongs to Trump. Thune also is running for reelection this year, with three other Republicans declared as primary candidates.

None of the three are likely to threaten Thune much. But still, it’s a consideration, but one that doesn’t count much with Bengs.

“The leadership training you get in the military is that you have greater obligations as a leader not less obligations,” Bengs says. “I would say he has a greater obligation than Mike Rounds to take a stand.”

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Early in 2021, Thune took enough of a stand against the insurrection to cause a drop in his approval rating among Republican voters in South Dakota. He rebounded as the year went on but still felt the “Trump effect.”

Trump has resented Thune since the South Dakota senator joined then-Gov. Dennis Daugaard in calling for Trump to withdraw from the 2016 presidential race after an old Access Hollywood video showed Trump bragging about sexually assaulting and harassing women.

Trump refused to withdraw and went on to win the election, taking 62 percent of the vote in South Dakota then and again in 2020, when he lost to Biden.

If the animosity between Trump and Thune matters in the election, it’s probably not enough to be decisive. And Bengs isn’t counting on it. He thinks he has other issues to exploit, including Thune’s position on the Affordable Care Act.

“The Republicans are talking about killing off the Affordable Care Act if they come back in power,” Bengs says.

He also intends to challenge Thune on entitlement programs and climate change, which Bengs considers to be a national security issue as much as an environmental one.

“And if we’re going to pursue energy independence, it seems like the best path is through clean energy and not the fossil fuels market where we have to go through places like Russia, and just trying to increase the production of oil,” Bengs says. Those things keep us in the same boat we’ve been in since the 1970s.

“Oil is a global commodity, so the price isn’t set in the U.S. and U.S. production isn’t necessarily going to save us,” Bengs says.

As Bengs runs for the Senate, the Democratic Party is down a candidate for the U.S. House. Ryan Ryder withdrew from the campaign at the request of the state Democratic Party a day after he announced his campaign and after inappropriateTwitter comments he made in the past were revealed by Republicans.

Bengs said that while he didn’t condone what Ryder said in those comments “I sympathize with him to the extent that it’s easy to get sucked down in that sort of thing trying to engage people who are inclined that way anyway.”

When asked if he had a clean social media history, Bengs said: “I believe I do. I’d encourage anybody to look at my Twitter account, which started in 2020. I’ve got some quotes I like that I put on there. Everybody can read the quotes. They’re good.”

You can find his campaign ads on Twitter, too, in particular the one with the Bs, which concludes with Bengs saying he’s “here to build bridges.” The ad includes photos of Missouri River bridges and a pitch for the infrastructure bill that Thune voted against.

“I care about our jobs. President Biden delivered $2 billion for 1,038 of South Dakota’s beautiful bridges, to get to work,” Bengs says in the ad. “I avoid crap because we don’t have time for BS.”

Bengs says he uses the “military approach to problem solving — observe, orient, decide and act to confront people’s fears. I dare to deliver, for my family, for yours, for South Dakotans. Get Bengs on the ballot.”

To make the ballot, Bengs needs 1 percent of the votes cast for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2018 — or 1,615.

Which is pretty much a gimme.

Things get a little tougher after that, however. While there’s apparently a possible Democratic challenger to Bengs trucking around western South Dakota, I’m assuming Bengs will be the Democratic candidate in the general election.

Then the numbers game will get a lot tougher than gathering 1,615 nominating-petition signatures, as Bengs will face Thune and that 130,000 edge in Republican voters.

Which, will be another 'B' — as in big obstacle — for Bengs and his hopes for a big, big upset in the U.S. Senate race.