Aberdeen professor mounts Democratic challenge to Sen. John Thune
A longtime Independent, Brian Bengs is running as a Democrat to challenge John Thune, saying he sees a worsening partisan divide as an existential threat in a post-1/6 America.
PIERRE, S.D. — Brian Bengs has two dates in mind when he talks about his candidacy for the U.S. Senate.
First, Sept. 11, 2001, when, as a young attorney in the U.S. Air Force, he felt surrounded and solidified by men and women on a military base in Missouri, who would respond to the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
"It was a surreal experience because I'm with the people who are going to go out and do something about this," Bengs said in an interview on Wednesday, Feb. 16, at a bed and breakfast in Pierre.
The other date? Jan. 6, 2021.
This time, he felt powerless.
"I'm in my home office ... and I see [on TV] they're breaching the Capitol, and I'm glued to my screen," said Bengs.
Hunched over a table, the 6-foot-9-inch attorney and history professor pounds his fist in frustration remembering, like many Americans, watching the events of that day unfold.
"Unlike Sept. 11, I'm not with my people. I'm not with the people who are going to say, 'OK, let's go do something."
It was in the days, weeks and months after the attack on the nation's capital that Bengs felt compelled to run for office.
"I feel the need to be with them again because it's more of an existential threat to our Republic, what happened that day, than the fact that some terrorists killed a bunch of Americans on Sept. 11."
"Somebody needs to do something," Bengs concluded.
Running as a Democratic challenger for South Dakota's U.S. Senate seat held by incumbent Republican Sen. John Thune doesn't seem like the first logical step.
In fact, Bengs understands if people ask, "Who is this guy?"
The path for a Democratic victory in a statewide race in South Dakota — not achieved since Sen. Tim Johnson and Rep. Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin won reelection in 2008 — typically runs through the urban center of Sioux Falls, and the college towns of Vermillion, Brookings, and Aberdeen, with strong turnout on the blue-leaning reservations.
A native of Iowa, Bengs spent two decades in the Air Force as an attorney before moving with his wife and two daughters to Aberdeen in 2016, taking a history professor job at Northern State University.
Bengs says he's also been a lifelong registered Independent and had hoped to run — a la Maine's Sen. Angus King or Sen. Bernie Sanders — as an independent who caucused with the Democrats. But after discovering South Dakota state law prohibits such a maneuver, he spoke with South Dakota Democratic Party leaders and switched affiliations.
Now, he merely needs to run an against-the-odds campaign against a popular Republican senator with more than $15 million cash on hand.
"If I'm able to raise a bunch of money over the next couple months, it'll be a race," said Bengs. Right now, he's traveling the state in his car to drive petitions. But he wonders if he might raise enough money to buy an RV for the campaign.
Bengs hopes to draw independents, too.
He calls himself a fiscal conservative (he wants to balance the budget through a mix of cuts and tax increases on the wealthy) and social liberal (in favor of abortion rights). He has foreign policy chops, having taught in a NATO school in Germany. And speaking on the Russian troop buildup along the Ukrainian border, Bengs say the West needs to send stronger signals to get Putin to back down.
"Russians respect force," he said.
Mostly, he wants to build bridges, as his campaign slogan says. He says, unlike the state's current federal delegation, he would've voted for the Biden administration's bipartisan infrastructure deal that will send the Rushmore State nearly $2 billion to fix worn-out roads and decrepit bridges, as well as expand broadband.
Bengs acknowledges that even cheering the bipartisan bill draws skepticism in heavily politicized rural America.
"My neighbor and I, depending on where we get information, we live next door, we shop at the same stores, we go to the same businesses and clubs, kids go to the same schools, but we live in completely different countries," said Bengs.
Did he mean his actual neighbor or a rhetorical one?
He says his "actual neighbor," who he described as a "big Fox News supporter" who has collected Donald Trump stickers, is also his campaign treasurer.
"He and I will fight about Fox News, but we're drinking beer in his backyard, and we're watching the fire, talking about 'what has Hillary done ...' and he won't agree with me, but he will at least engage in the conversation," said Bengs, "which is what I think we need."
Booking backyard fire-pit chats with enough voters between now and November, however, will be a tall order.
Instead, he'll need to mount an old-fashioned campaign — highway miles and diners — betting South Dakotans' remembrance of those two infamous days are as archly etched in their minds as in his.