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Sen. Tim Johnson (S-SD) official portrait
Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD)
As expected, Tim Johnson has decided to retire rather than seek a fourth term in the Senate next year. Johnson faced an indisputably tough race ahead. While South Dakota once regularly elected Democrats to federal office, Johnson was the last one left standing, and his long record as a member of the blue team had inevitably worn on his reputation back home. On top of that, he drew the strongest possible opponent immediately after last November's election in the form of ex-Gov. Mike Rounds, who remains pretty popular. And though Johnson's mental acuity has never been in doubt, a 2006 stroke affected his mobility and speech, requiring the use of a wheelchair at times.

When Democratic incumbents retire in red states, that often portends difficulty in terms of holding the seat. But this case may be an exception. A recent PPP poll found Johnson losing to Rounds by 11 points, but if ex-Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin ran in his stead, she'd still trail, but by a much small 4-point margin. I suspect the difference boils down to tenure: Johnson has been in Congress since 1986 (starting in the House), while Herseth Sandlin served a little over six years before losing in 2010. Sometimes you're better off running without a lengthy history of votes and public statements attached to your name.

It's no sure thing that Herseth Sandlin will run, though, and if she opts not to, all eyes will turn to U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, who is Tim Johnson's son. While Johnson is largely unknown and thus fared poorly in PPP's poll, he may actually have more upside than Herseth Sandlin: As a prosecutor, he has no unpopular votes to defend and can present the sort of law-and-order image that often works well for Democrats running on difficult red terrain.

And it's not necessarily smooth sailing for Rounds, either. Many conservatives view him as a "moderate," a dreaded label in a GOP primary. They'd likely prefer Rep. Kristi Noem, the woman who unseated Herseth Sandlin. Noem is being cagey, with her campaign saying she "hasn't ruled anything in or out," but if she were to run, PPP's survey showed the nomination would be a tossup between her and Rounds. And in various general election matchups, Noem makes the race noticeably more competitive.

But make no mistake about it: Regardless of whom either side puts forward, this is going to be a very difficult hold for Democrats, who face a very difficult Senate landscape overall. The one bit of optimism I might offer is that Dems managed to keep an open Senate seat in North Dakota blue last year, thanks to Heidi Heitkamp's brilliant campaign and the weakness of her opponent. We'd be very lucky indeed to replicate that success, though, but we'll be following all further developments here very closely, as always.

Originally posted to Daily Kos Elections on Tue Mar 26, 2013 at 01:10 PM PDT.

Also republished by South Dakota Kos and Daily Kos.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (12+ / 0-)

    Get the Daily Kos Elections Digest in your inbox every weekday. Sign up here.

    by David Nir on Tue Mar 26, 2013 at 01:10:49 PM PDT

  •  I know all of the arguments (0+ / 0-)

    about Dems in Red states but I will not mourn his departure.

  •  Johnson also voted for Obamacare (6+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Loge, mconvente, bumiputera, TheKF1, abgin, ban nock

    while SHS did not (though I'm sure she would have as a senator when 60 votes were necessary). So that probably explains part of why he's a good deal less popular than her; his voting record was simply to the left of hers.

  •  Herseth Sandlin....I had a brief flirtation (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    betelgeux, askew

    with her.  Gave her money via EMILY'S List.  Then I watched her vote against the Affordable Health Care Act.  Then I watched her vote the NRA line.  

    Perhaps she is the best that can be delivered from a Dakota state, but I will not be opening my wallet another time for her.

    It's the Supreme Court, stupid!

    by Radiowalla on Tue Mar 26, 2013 at 01:18:41 PM PDT

  •  it will be tough to... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ban nock

    hold the Senate, but if we lose it, at least we'll have the failsafe of holding the White House and it will only be for two years. In 2016, the GOP has to defend the 2010 wave.

    "It's almost as if we're watching Mitt Romney on Safari in his own country." -- Jonathan Capeheart

    by JackND on Tue Mar 26, 2013 at 01:26:25 PM PDT

    •  We're not going to lost the Senate (3+ / 0-)

      Not even if my life depended on it.  We keep forgetting just how much ammunition we have against the GOP which we can use against them.

      For instance, Heidi Heitkamp won election to the U.S. Senate in North Dakota even though it's a red state.  All this was due to her great ability to reach out to voters regardless of party.

      Don't forget, Tom Daschle, who used to be the Senate Minority Leader (and a better one than Harry Reid, who served as Senate Minority Whip).  The reasons why Tom Daschle lost was because the GOP had better grassroots campaign and were more focused (and President Bush was popular in the GOP back in 2004).  Unless the South Dakota GOP has been brainwashed by the Tea Party, I think we're not that bad off.

      It's only near the end of March 2013 now so we have time:  Time to wake up the Democratic base in South Dakota.

    •  Lose, not lost (0+ / 0-)

      Accidental spelling mistake.  My bad.

  •  what is the confidence level (0+ / 0-)

    of the senate having 50 democrats in 2014 plus Mr. Biden?

    •  Pretty good (4+ / 0-)

      SD and WV are likely GOP pickups.  AK and MT are tossups... AR, LA, NC are leaning Democratic.

      Losses are likely, but the GOP would have to sweep all but one of those races to get to 51 votes, and that doesn't seem very probable.

      •  Hm (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        ban nock

        I'd put AK as a tossup/lean R if Parnell runs, if it is anyone else I'd give a slight lead to Begich (polls show him leading all others by high single digits).
        Furthermore why do you say that AR is leaning democrat? I have seen no polls on the race and it is AR after all.
        Id say SD is likely a GOP pick up but that could change if SDS runs and if there is a brutal R primary.

        We only think nothing goes without saying.

        by Hamtree on Tue Mar 26, 2013 at 08:42:58 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  It is possible we'll lose the Senate (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ban nock

      but I think unlikely. The 2 seats we picked up this last time around are critical to our ability to retain the Senate in 2014. Had we not won them or had we lost a seat or two as expected we'd be in serious trouble in 2014 but as it is I think worst case scenario has us ending up with 52 seats following 2014. Best case has us only losing 1 or 2 seats while maybe even picking up 1 and then 2016 gives us a chance to hit 60.

      "Do what you can with what you have where you are." - Teddy Roosevelt

      by Andrew C White on Tue Mar 26, 2013 at 02:51:10 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  And if that happens, (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ban nock

      Republicans will go all out to poach Angus King. So 51 Democrats is a better target than the bare minimum of 50.

      Barbara Buono for NJ Governor 2013, Terry McAuliffe for VA Governor 2013

      by interstate73 on Tue Mar 26, 2013 at 03:30:34 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  If (4+ / 0-)

    Dems get the Native American vote out, the way they did for Heidi Heitkamp, they can keep the seat.

    Being "pro-life" means believing that every child born has a right to food, education, and access to health care.

    by Jilly W on Tue Mar 26, 2013 at 01:45:58 PM PDT

  •  I think this race will be very similar to the (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Andrew C White, ban nock

    ND-Sen race because farmers unions and Native Americans help Democrats win seats in these states.  Plus Berg was an establishment type who looked tough on the outside but once you took a closer look, he had a lot of baggage.  Same thing with Rounds, he looks tough on the outside but take a closer look, he has his share of baggage.  Especially delaying FEMA relief for the Pine Ridge Reservation during the huge blizzard in 2007.  Plus he refuses to sign Norquist's anti-tax pledge whereas Noem has.  Plus Rounds knows he's going to get a primary challenger and he is one of the early examples of a candidate who benefited from Super PAC cash hence why he pulled an upset victory in the 2002 GOP Governor's primary.  Rounds doesn't excite the base like Noem and Noem not only has the Tea Party base but was awarded the National Association of Wheat Growers and could get them on her side.  I think Noem is going to be a top target by the DCCC who I think have more money that the DSCC because of her voting twice against the VAWA so running for the Senate, at least in her mind, might save her.  It would also give her a chance to prove that a Tea Party candidate can still help Republicans win the Senate.  Not to mention Governor Daugaard is doing everything he can to secure Rounds' victory by appointing one of Rounds' cronies from POET to runs the economic development board in SD.  If Rounds is the clear favorite to win both the primary and the general, why is Daugaard taking these cautious steps to secure Rounds' chances?  Plus it makes Rounds' look bad to the Tea Party like the establishment is trying to shut them out.

    As for SHS, I didn't like that she voted against the AFA but I thank her for defending her stimulus vote.  PPP clearly shows that Dems like her the most and she gets cross over appeal and she wants Native American poverty issues to be a bigger priority in Government.  I like Brendan Johnson more but a son running for his father's seat, I'm now convinced, doesn't look right.  Brendan Johnson has a great reputation on Native American issues as Attorney General and he is loved by the Pine Ridge Reservation for reopening unsolved murder cases there but I think Johnson should continue to build his relationship with them and practice law in SD.  Wait until 2016 when the man who almost unseat his father, John Thune, will be up for re-election in a Presidential election.  That way it won't look like Johnson is passing his seat to his son, it'll be Brendan Johnson winning his seat by himself.  

    Funny Stuff at

    by poopdogcomedy on Tue Mar 26, 2013 at 01:53:40 PM PDT

  •  According to Progressive Punch (15+ / 0-)

    He is more reliable on lifetime crucial votes than Mark Udall, Harry Reid, Bill Nelson, Michael Bennet, Mark Warner, Tom Carper and Tim Kaine. All Democrats from states Obama carried twice. The president lost South Dakota twice and comfortably so. Tim Johnson is a valuable Democrat and should be missed.

    "What do you mean "conspiracy"? Does that mean it's someone's imaginings and that the actual polls hovered right around the result?" - petral

    by conspiracy on Tue Mar 26, 2013 at 02:11:16 PM PDT

  •  Before PPP's poll I would havebeen upset (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Stephen Wolf, ban nock

    But clearly Johnson was weaker than I had thought.  His incumbency, combined with a bruising primary from Rounds and Noem might have given him a chance, but probably not.  

    Further, I doubt SHS will run, she tends to be risk adverse, but if she does, she'd be the best option.  In fact, I'd rank them as such.
    1. SHS
    2. Sen Johnson
    3. Johnson the Younger.

    This is a likely loss regardless of what happens, but let's hope for SHS, blue dog or not, she'd be better than Rounds and a lot better than Noem.

    One more thing, Rounds' big claim to fame in 2002 was running the only positive primary campaign and he's run less than bruising campaigns since then.  That may make him vulnerable to a smear campaign by Noem, or dems, or above the slime.

    An all positive campaign between Johnson and Rounds, while likely to result in a loss for the ems, wold have been a nice campaign.

    NH-02. First time living in NH, waiting for the candidates to start a courting.

    by DougTuttle on Tue Mar 26, 2013 at 02:16:50 PM PDT

  •  Johnson/SHS (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Zack from the SFV, ban nock

    I don't understand blaming Tim Johnson for the fact that we don't have a parliamentary system.  We vote for the person and not the party in this country.  There are good arguments for changing that system, but to throw Tim Johnson and the state of South Dakota under the bus because you're frustrated is unfair

    Same thing goes with SHS.  I would guess seventy or eighty percent of the calls into her office urge her to support the NRA's agenda, under our current system it's difficult to vote against the wishes of your constituents (no matter how misguided they may be) and then have to pretend like you voted the way they wanted you to

    It seems that some people may want to cast all voters from South Dakota as either liberal or conservative on every issue.  I guarantee you though that SHS's voting record did a better job of representing all of South Dakota's voters than John Thune's does.  

  •  It is an expected retirement (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    A red state plus bad polls plus health troubles, it is not rare to have a retirement.

    This seat would be Lean R for me, even with S Herseth-Sandlin, but there are better options to fight, and I'm optimistic about the chance of keeping the majority in the senate.

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