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Sen. Johnson 'closes circle' with retirement announcement

Tim Johnson

VERMILLION -- When Tim Johnson told his wife Barb he wanted to run for office back in 1978, she said it was fine with her, on one condition.

"I told him, 'You can run until you lose,' " Barb Johnson said Tuesday, minutes after Sen. Tim Johnson said he would not run for office in 2014.

"Little did I know it'd be 36 years," she said with a broad smile and a chuckle.

When Tim Johnson, 66, leaves the Senate in January 2015, barring any unforeseen event that prevents him from completing his third term, he will have been an elected official for 36 years. He was elected to two terms in the state House, two in the state Senate, five in the U.S. House of Representatives, and three in the U.S. Senate. He also won three primaries, two in his days in the Legislature, and one in 1986 in his first run for the U.S. House.

His final statistics: 15-0 in elections, including 12-0 in general elections.

It's a record of success that no major South Dakota politician can match. Karl Mundt won five terms in the U.S. House and is the only South Dakotan to win four terms in the U.S. Senate. But Mundt lost his first race for the House.

George McGovern served two terms in the House and three terms in the Senate. But he lost his first and last races for the Senate.

Larry Pressler served two terms in the House and three in the Senate. His career ended in 1996 when he was defeated for a fourth term -- by Tim Johnson.

Tom Daschle, Johnson's Democratic partner in the Senate for nearly a decade, served four terms in the House and three in the Senate until his career ended with a loss to John Thune in 2004.

Thune won three terms in the House and was unopposed when he sought a second Senate term in 2010. The only blemish on his record is a razor-thin loss for the Senate in 2002 -- to Tim Johnson.

'Worst-kept secret

Johnson confirmed "the worst-kept secret in politics" on Tuesday, as his state director Sharon Boysen referred to it. But the focus for most people was on his years in office, the accomplishments and the career that started in 1978.

Johnson said he came to Vermillion, the town where he was raised, graduated from high school, and earned bachelor's, master's and law degrees from the University of South Dakota, to "close a circle" and end his career as a candidate for office.

He said he appreciated that Democrats, Republicans and independents supported him in his campaigns.

He also is grateful for other times when South Dakotans backed him.

"You have supported me in multiple elections, 12 general elections, and more importantly, your patience and prayers enabled me to recover from a life-threatening brain injury," he said.

The residue of that Dec. 13, 2006, brain hemorrhage was evident Tuesday in his slurred speech and his entrance and exit Tuesday at the Al Neuharth Media Center on the USD campus on a motorized scooter.

After the 15-minute press conference, Johnson said he has been leaning toward retirement for several months, but made his decision to retire in February. But there was a moment last week when he and his wife almost changed their minds and considered one more race, she said.

But they decided "it was time," he said.

"I feel great. But I must be honest, I appreciate that my right arm and my right leg aren't what they used to be," Johnson said. "And my speech is not entirely clear. Mostly, I think it's time to go. I feel I have other things to do."

After winning races for more than a third of a century, he admitted it will be difficult at times in 2014 to see others competing while he is on the sidelines.

"It will be strange," Johnson said. "I have ran for election 36 years in a row. It will be strange."

He said he had no firm plans for the $1.2 million he has in his campaign war chest.

"I don't know really," Johnson said. "I'll find uses for it."

He said he plans to support the Democratic Party, but did not reveal how or what role he will play in 2014 or down the road. He will be a featured speaker at the 2013 McGovern Day Dinner in Sioux Falls next month.

Potential candidates

In November, former Gov. Mike Rounds said he will seek the Republican nomination for the Senate seat Johnson now holds. The day Rounds made his announcement, Johnson said he fully intended to mount a winning campaign.

"I misspoke," he said when asked about that. "I should have said 'if I run again.' That's my fault, I guess."

But he said he was not concerned about a poll released last week that showed him trailing both Rounds and Rep. Kristi Noem in projected matchups. Johnson smiled when asked if he thought he could win.

"I've never been beat," he said.

With Johnson taking himself out of the picture, speculation turns to his son, U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, and former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin as potential candidates for the Democratic nomination for Senate. Neither attended Tuesday's event.

"I think there are several good candidates out there," the three-term senator said. "It's no great secret I'm not running again. I have discussed that with him and a lot of other people."

Tim Johnson advised reporters to ask Brendan Johnson what his plans are for 2014. The younger Johnson, citing his work as U.S. attorney, has declined to discuss politics when asked.

After the press conference, Tim Johnson was asked what Herseth Sandlin should do in 2014.

"I have no opinion on that," he said.

Herseth Sandlin deflected speculation on her future.

"Today is Senator Johnson's day, a day to reflect on his extraordinary service to the state of South Dakota. And while I've appreciated the encouragement I've received, I haven't focused on future political opportunities," she said in an email to The Daily Republic. "Rather, like countless others, today I'm focused on Tim."

Future plans

The announcement that he would not run was hardly a surprise. Reporters, columnists and pundits, both in South Dakota and in Washington, D.C., had speculated on it for months, and several reports Monday said he would retire.

But when he said the words, some people in the room gasped. Johnson, however, was in a good mood, chatting with reporters, friends and supporters. In his brief speech, he focused on others.

"Barb and I want to thank all of the members of Team Johnson who work long hours, every day, to make government responsive to the needs of our citizens and to develop policies that serve South Dakota and America," he said. "You are extraordinary and always will be members of our family."

He talked with his staff before coming into the press conference, Boysen said. The Washington, D.C., staff, as well as his employees at the Rapid City and Aberdeen field offices, listened in as Johnson told them his plans and thanked them for their work.

Johnson said he will remain busy with the nearly two years he has left in the Senate. He remains the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee and serves on other committees as well. But he said once he leaves the Senate, he plans to focus on family.

"The Bible says that there is a time for every season under heaven," Johnson said. "It is now our season to spend more time with our six grandchildren and in the state we love."

The Johnsons have a home in Virginia, and he said they will spend time there in the winter. Barb Johnson said that is one option, but they may look for another place to reside part of the time as well.

They also own a home in Sioux Falls, and four of their grandchildren live there, she said. That makes it a place she wants to spend a lot of time.