Tim Johnson retirement boosts GOP hopes to take back Senate

Tim Johnson is the seventh US senator to bow out of a reelection bid in 2014, giving Republicans their best shot to pick up a seat. But conservatives are eager not to elect a GOP moderate.

Jay Pickthorn/Argus Leader/AP
Sen. Tim Johnson (D) of South Dakota is greeted by well wishers at the Al Neuharth Media Center in Vermillion, S.D., after announcing his retirement from the US Senate after his term ends in early 2015.

Sen. Tim Johnson (D) of South Dakota announced that he would not seek a fourth term on Tuesday, leaving a political opening for Republicans hoping to take back the Senate and creating a key vacancy at the top of the powerful Senate Banking Committee he chairs.

“I’m 68 years old this next session and as much as [his wife] Barbara would like for me to run again, I have to say no,” Senator Johnson said in a press conference at his alma mater, the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, that was punctuated with frequent laughter. “I’ve run for election 36 years in a row and it’s now time to give it up. It will be strange, but I’m certain that I can get over it.”

Johnson cruised to victory in his 2008 reelection campaign with more than 60 percent of the vote, even after suffering a stroke in 2006. He returned to the Senate the following year to adulation from his colleagues and well-wishes from President George W. Bush in his State of the Union address.
Johnson’s departure leaves much unsettled about the 2014 Senate contest in South Dakota for both political parties.

Johnson was coy about the Democrat who would succeed him as the party’s choice for the seat. His son, Brendan, the US attorney in the Mount Rushmore State, is poised to run but lacks political bona fides beyond his bloodline. Former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D) could also get into the mix.

"There are several good candidates out there,” said the elder Johnson, but “you’ll have to ask Brendan about that.... I’ve discussed [the race] with [Brendan] and a lot of other people. But I’ve not discussed in detail what comes next.”

Republicans see picking up a seat in South Dakota, which has a deeply red state legislature and favored Mitt Romney over President Obama by 18 percentage points in November, as a key step toward claiming the six Senate seats they need to retake control of the chamber in 2014.

“Another retirement, an ugly rivalry, and a red state,” said Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee in an e-mail. “Add 'em all up and it's another rough day for Senate Democrats.”

Democrats have indeed suffered quite a few retirements this time around.

Johnson’s retirement is the fifth for Senate Democrats in the 2014 cycle, joining Sens. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, Carl Levin of Michigan, Tom Harkin of Iowa, and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey. That quintet joins Republican retirees Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Mike Johanns of Nebraska.

Professional Senate watchers believe that, among the remaining open seats, Republicans have their strongest shot at capturing West Virginia and Iowa but have only an outside shot, at best, of nabbing Michigan.

Overall, however, the seven retirements during the 2014 election cycle mirror similar levels in the past three cycles – five senators walked away in 2008 followed by eight in 2010 and 10 in 2012.

Popular former Gov. Mike Rounds (R) has joined the fray and showed a wide electoral edge over the younger Johnson but only the slimmest of margins versus Ms. Sandlin, according to a recent Public Policy Polling survey. But the same poll also shows Rep. Kristi Noem (R) of South Dakota within striking distance: she would hold a general election advantage against the younger Johnson while a contest with Ms. Sandlin would be a dead heat.

[Editor's note: The original version stated the results of the Public Policy Polling poll incorrectly.]

That’s significant because Representative Noem, swept into office on the tea party wave of 2010, could potentially gain the good graces of powerful outside groups like the fiscally conservative Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF), which have shown a distaste for Mr. Rounds.

"Now that Senator Johnson is retiring, the door is wide open for Republicans in South Dakota to elect a true conservative. We're working with our members in the state to find a candidate who will fight for limited government in the US Senate,” said Matt Hoskins, the SCF’s executive director, in a statement, specifically citing higher taxes on some consumer goods and Rounds’s unwillingness to swear off future tax increases as points of concern.

"If the grass roots in South Dakota get behind a strong challenger, SCF will seriously consider supporting that candidate against Mike Rounds in the Republican primary. This race is too important to concede it to another moderate politician who won't fight for limited government," said Mr. Hoskins, a former aide to Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina.

If that sounds like a recipe for more ideological pyrotechnics in a Republican primary, think again.

Election watchers at the Rothenberg Political Report argue that “even though there is the potential for a competitive Republican primary, neither Rounds nor Noem look like the the type of polarizing candidate who has given Republicans problems in other states over the last two cycles.”

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