With Sen. Johnson Set to Retire, What’s Next in South Dakota?

Sen. Tim Johnson

Sen. Tim Johnson

As expected, Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD) officially announced yesterday that he will not seek a fourth term in the upcoming 2014 election. The senator, accompanied by his wife, Barbara, addressed members of the media in a Sioux Falls news conference saying, “I will be 68 years old at the end of this term and it is time for me to say good-bye.”

He indicated after 36 consecutive years in elective office — including service in the state legislature, and combined time in the US House and Senate — that he and his wife are looking forward to returning to life in South Dakota and “doing other things.” When asked if had he decided to run again, would he have won, the senator quipped that he “has never been beaten.” He did concede that the brain hemorrhage he suffered in 2006 has made life more difficult, but emphasized that he never stopped working hard for the people who repeatedly elected him as their representative.

Without Sen. Johnson on the ballot, the Republicans have a strong opportunity to convert the South Dakota Senate seat to their column and must be considered the early favorites to do so. Former governor Mike Rounds (R) announced his candidacy just after the November election and began running full speed ahead and appeared unconcerned about Sen. Johnson’s political intentions.

A Tea Party-backed recruitment effort to encourage Rep. Kristi Noem (R-SD-AL) to enter the Senate race will likely intensify now that the seat is officially open. For her part, the congresswoman only states that she “isn’t ruling anything out” as it relates to making the Senate race or running for re-election. Realistically, the more time that elapses without her taking concrete steps toward developing a Senate campaign helps Rounds become a consensus candidate.

Johnson’s party leaders are strongly looking at two people, former representative Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, who South Dakota Democratic chairman Ben Nesselhuf said “could run for any office in the state and win,” and Sen. Johnson’s son Brendan, who is the South Dakota US Attorney.

The former congresswoman, however, does have her share of political baggage. First, she spends most of her time working in a Washington lobbying firm and living in DC, and though the state party chairman expresses strong confidence in her, she has lost two of her five statewide races, including one as an incumbent. Brendan Johnson, who will be 38 later this year, has never before sought political office.

Johnson becomes the tenth US senator to either leave the body or announce plans to do so since the November 2012 election. The list includes Hawaii’s Daniel Inouye who passed away in late December, Massachusetts’ John Kerry, now President Obama’s Secretary of State, and South Carolina’s Jim DeMint, who resigned his seat to become president of the Heritage Foundation. Seven more senators, beginning with West Virginia’s Jay Rockefeller and ending with Johnson, have announced that they will not seek re-election in 2014.

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