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TUPPER: Tim Johnson's vague wording may have been veiled preview of son's candidacy

Seth Tupper

In a November column about U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., I described his persistently deteriorated physical condition since a stroke-like episode in 2006 and referenced a non-announcement he had recently made about the 2014 election.

This is what I wrote:

"Johnson stopped short of officially announcing his own re-election bid, but said he will make an announcement later next year and added, 'I fully intend to put together a winning campaign.' (Which, I can't help but notice, leaves him an out if he needs or wants one. He said 'a' campaign, not necessarily his own.)"

Actually, that was my first draft. The first sentence was published, but I deleted the parenthetical part prior to publication. I had begun to think I was over-analyzing the situation, and I feared making too much of the perceived wiggle room in Johnson's statement. It was clear many observers thought Johnson's announcement was a teaser in advance of an official future announcement of his candidacy. Granted, he said "a" campaign instead of "my" campaign, but maybe that was just a poor word choice by him or a staffer.

I wish now I'd left my column intact, because recently there's been a wave of speculation about Johnson's possible retirement. The new conventional wisdom says he's keeping his Senate seat warm for his son Brendan, the U.S. attorney for South Dakota who has long been anointed a future Democratic star.

If the younger Johnson does finally gallop onto the political battlefield, he'll likely face popular former governor Mike Rounds, a Republican who's already running. But before Brendan gets a shot at Rounds, he might have to beat back other Democrats. That's because if Tim Johnson resigns, it's now or never for every Democrat in South Dakota who has even the slightest desire to ever run for Congress.

Think of it: If Tim Johnson steps aside and his seat falls to the Republican Rounds, South Dakota's entire congressional delegation will consist of youthful-looking, ambitious and popular Republicans: Rounds, Sen. John Thune and Rep. Kristi Noem. With those three entrenched in office, every South Dakota congressional race for the foreseeable future -- heck, maybe even the next decade or two -- would probably include a Republican incumbent who would be automatically favored over any Democratic challenger.

A potential Republican congressional triumvirate would be daunting enough on its own, but Democrats also face an added bit of pressure: If Tim Johnson walks away and they fail to retain his seat, they could face a situation in which there would be no Democrats in South Dakota's statewide offices.

Currently, Tim Johnson is the only elected Democrat who represents all of South Dakota. His congressional colleagues are both Republicans. The state's governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, auditor, treasurer, commissioner of school and public lands, and three public utilities commissioners are all Republicans. So, if Tim Johnson retires and his party fails to retain his seat or pick up any of the others, there will be no Democrats who represent the state at large.

The Democrats apparently recognize their precarious position. A Democratic friend of mine recently was polled by phone, presumably by Democrats, about her thoughts on Brendan Johnson and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. I can only surmise that Democrats either know Tim Johnson will retire or, at the least, are trying to figure out who they should support in case he does.

The father's departure would create a potentially irresistible opening for the son, who would be a formidable candidate. Already, as U.S. attorney, Brendan Johnson has undertaken politically advantageous initiatives to reduce crime on American Indian reservations in South Dakota. Political gain might not have been the motivation, but there's no denying that Tim Johnson's domination of the Indian vote helped him eke out his 524-vote re-election victory over John Thune in 2002. If Brendan Johnson runs, he can probably count on a similar level of support from Indian Country.

He also brings the credibility of the office of U.S. attorney, a clean slate from having never run for or held elective office, and powerful name recognition and a positive association with one of the state's all-time most successful and respected politicians, his father.

Brendan Johnson also appears to have that something extra -- an aura, if you will -- that great politicians tend to have. I witnessed that firsthand several years ago when, after he left a visit with me in my office, a pair of young women in the newsroom converged on me quickly and demanded to know the identity of the handsome, sharply dressed young man who had just glided in and out of their sight.

Of course, Mike Rounds is no slouch. He brings the weight of his eight years as governor, impressive political skills and the backing of the state's biggest political party.

Yes, 2014 could be quite a year. For now, we'll have to wait for Tim Johnson to clear up that semantic debate he sparked back in November: Will he mount "a" campaign, or his own?