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'Vacant' sign hung on Johnson's Senate seat

Ben Nesselhuf1 / 2
U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., listens to farmers and cattle producers during a meeting in Huron in organized by the South Dakota Farmers Union in this November file photo. (Chris Huber/Republic)2 / 2

The South Dakota Democratic Party's top official said he thinks there will be high interest in the "vacant" Senate seat up for grabs in 2014.

One problem: The seat is still held by Sen. Tim Johnson, and the three-term Democratic senator has not announced his plans for next year. Despite widespread speculation and reports that Johnson, 66, intends to retire, he has yet to indicate what he will do.

Ben Nesselhuf, the chairman and executive director of the state Democratic Party, said he doesn't know what Johnson will announce. But Nesselhuf offered a hint about what he thinks may happen when asked if Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., will run for the Senate.

"They're not coming to me for advice," he said Wednesday morning of Noem and Republicans. "But when is she going to get a shot at a vacant Senate seat?"

Nesselhuf said he used the word "vacant" for a reason.

"That's assuming he does retire," he said. "If he retires, I think she has to run."

Noem, of rural Castlewood, is in her second term in the House. She has admitted to being somewhat interested in running for the Senate next year.

On Wednesday, her press secretary, Courtney Heitkamp, said Noem is still undecided on her 2014 intentions.

Conservative challenge to Rounds?

Former Gov. Mike Rounds, who now lives in Fort Pierre, is the sole announced candidate for the seat, but several conservative Republicans have said they will not support Rounds. If Noem does not run, they will find another candidate to challenge Rounds in a primary, they have publicly stated.

"While conservatives wait and wonder, 'will SOMEONE challenge Rounds for this Senate seat' ... he is busy trying to convince South Dakota Republicans that he is 'conservative enough' for the job," former state Sen. Gordon Howie, R-Rapid City, wrote on The Right Side Blog. "Unless a conservative candidate steps up, it appears to be a cake-walk for Mike."

Howie touted former legislator Bill Napoli, another Rapid City Republican, as a possible challenger if Noem does not run.

South Dakota's other Senate seat is held by Sen. John Thune, a popular Republican in his second term. The South Dakota Democratic Party didn't run a candidate against him in 2010, conceding the race.

Thune was able to work for Noem and Dennis Daugaard as they ran for Congress and the governor's office, respectively. GOP donors could also focus on those two races, since there was no contest for the Senate.

Nesselhuf was a state senator running for secretary of state, not the head of the state party. He said he has mixed feelings about not running someone against Thune.

"That was an idea that I supported then," he said. "We were trying to keep him on the sideline as much as possible. With his $6 million in the bank, we thought that was a good idea, and I think it basically worked.

"As a candidate, I supported that," Nesselhuf said. "As a party-building idea, I think it was a poor choice."

This year, the Democrats will have someone competing for all jobs, Nesselhuf said.

"Those are very important races," he said. "Last year was just a warm-up. Next year will be a very exciting year to be a political operative or a political reporter."

Johnson speculation

Johnson, 66, has never lost an election, winning terms in the Legislature, the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate. Although he suffered a major brain bleed in December 2006 that weakened his body and slurred his speech, he returned to the Senate floor after several months away in 2007 and campaigned for and won a third term in 2008.

But Johnson is still severely impacted physically from the 2006 episode.

Johnson's spokesman, Perry Plumart, said the senator, who has been in Congress for 26 years counting his 10 years in the House, will announce his plans this month. No date has been set for Johnson's decision to be made public.

When Rounds announced for the Senate in November, Johnson seemed to indicate he would mount a re-election campaign.

"I fully intend to put together a winning campaign," he said then.

But Johnson has since cooled his rhetoric, and said he is still deciding what to do. It has also been pointed out that while he said "a" winning campaign, he didn't say it would be his campaign.

"If I run again, I will run a strong campaign is what I meant," Johnson said on Dec. 5. "But only if I run again, and it's far too soon to make that statement."

Johnson has $1.2 million in his campaign coffers, but he has not been holding fundraising events. In addition, several staffers have left him in recent months, which some observers believe also offers a tip on his impending retirement.

During a March 13 press call, Johnson said if he did retire from politics, the Democratic Party would not be left without a chance in the 2014 race.

"There are some excellent candidates waiting in the wings if I would decide not," he said.

Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics and a highly regarded political analyst and observer, said Johnson is viewed as having decided against a race in 2014 because of his health concerns.

Sabato said everyone he speaks with about the Senate race tells him Johnson will retire.

"The assumption in Washington is that Johnson isn't running," he told The Daily Republic Wednesday. "Sometimes, assumptions are wrong, but that is the assumption."

The Democratic bench

Nesselhuf said he is confident the Democrats will field candidates for all major offices in 2014. South Dakotans will choose a governor, U.S. senator and U.S. representative next year. That means they need four candidates -- one each for governor, lieutenant governor, senator and representative.

If Tim Johnson does retire, that leaves former Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and Sen. Johnson's son, U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, as the two most-talked-about Democrats in the state. Nesselhuf said he doubts they will try to knock each other off in a primary.

"They won't run against each other," he said.

But Nesselhuf said he doesn't know what office they will seek if they run. Sioux Falls Mayor Mike Huether, a Democrat, has also been mentioned as a possible statewide candidate in 2014, but Nesselhuf said that seems unlikely.

"As far as I know, he's going to run for re-election," he said.

Huether is out of town and unavailable for comment, according to a staffer.

Nesselhuf said several Democrats have contacted him and asked for more information about running for one of the three top jobs. He said some are well-known to the public, and all are known by politicians and the media.

So far, none of them is talking.

Nesselhuf, a former state legislator, said he will not run for any of the offices.

"I think I am probably out. I spent 10 years building bridges in Pierre," he said with a wry laugh. "In the last two, I managed to burn most of them."