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Poll: Rounds over Noem in 2014 Senate primary

Tim Johnson1 / 5
Brendan Johnson2 / 5
Stephanie Herseth Sandlin3 / 5
Mike Rounds4 / 5
Rep. Kristi Noem5 / 5

A national polling firm says Rep. Kristi Noem and former Gov. Mike Rounds would have a close contest in a Republican primary for the 2014 Senate seat.

Public Policy Polling, based in Raleigh, N.C., released polling data Thursday. It shows Rounds with a slight lead over Noem if they met in a primary. Both would defeat Sen. Tim Johnson in a general election match-up, according to PPP.

Speculation has been rampant lately that Johnson will retire rather than seek re-election next year.

Rounds leads Noem 43-39 in the poll. Noem, however, has a higher favorability rating with GOP voters at 71 percent positive and 18 negative, while Rounds is at 67-17.

In a survey of all voters, Rounds has a 51-34 favorability ranking, while Noem is at 49-42.

Rounds, in Washington, D.C., on a fundraising trip, told Politico he expects a primary next year.

"Would it be great if we didn't have [a primary challenge]? Of course," he said in the Politico story. "But we can't assume that. So we're assuming we'll have a primary challenge from some place."

During a teleconference with South Dakota reporters Thursday, Noem was asked about the poll.

"That's not something that has dominated my attention and probably won't for a while yet," Noem said.

But politics was on her mind, at least in a humorous way. When she was asked if she had filled out her bracket yet, with the questioner referring to the NCAA men's basketball tournament, Noem had a quick retort.

"My bracket for the Senate race or for the tournament?" she said.

Johnson, who is in his 26th year in Congress and third term in the Senate, has a 44 percent approval rating, with 45 percent disapproving of his work.

Rounds leads Johnson 52-41 in a hypothetical matchup, according to PPP, while Noem has a lesser margin, leading Johnson 49-45 according to the poll.

Perry Plumart, Johnson's communications director, had a short response when asked about the PPP survey.

"It is an interesting poll," Plumart said.

Another prominent South Dakota Democrat does fairly well in the poll.

"If Johnson were to retire, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin remains a popular figure in the state and may actually increase Democrats' chances at keeping the race competitive," a PPP release states. "She has a 52/37 favorability rating with 30 percent of Republicans holding a positive opinion of her, the kind of crossover appeal that's necessary for a Democrat to win in a state like South Dakota."

In the poll, which was conducted Monday and Tuesday, Herseth Sandlin has a narrow 48-47 lead over Noem, who defeated her in the 2010 House contest.

The former Democratic congresswoman, who did not respond to an email request for comment, trails Rounds 49-44 in the poll.

While Johnson's son Brendan, the state's U.S. attorney, has been viewed as a potential candidate for the Senate or House if his father retires, PPP said he is not the choice of most Democrats in the state.

"Herseth Sandlin is the strong favorite of Democrats to be their candidate if (Tim) Johnson decides not to run again," the firm states in the release.

It claims that 68 percent of South Dakota Democrats would support her in a primary, while Brendan Johnson would have the backing of 16 percent.

Brendan Johnson has just 42 percent name recognition. He trails Rounds 53-32 in a hypothetical contest and is behind Noem 49-37.

Rounds offered kind words about both during his interview with Politico.

"I consider them both to be very nice people. I've worked with Stephanie in the past, and we've worked well on projects together," he said. "Just because somebody else wants the same job I want doesn't make them a bad person. But we have different philosophies and different ways of getting the job done."

Ben Nesselhuf, the chairman and executive director of the South Dakota Democratic Party, used the poll to repeat his view that Rounds and Noem should meet in a primary when asked if he had read the poll.

"I have seen it and I think it certainly makes it much more likely that Congresswoman Noem will want to enter the Senate race," Nesselhuf said.

His counterpart, South Dakota Republican Party Executive Director Tony Post, said he had also studied the "interesting numbers" in the poll.

"Largely (as polls sometimes do) these numbers tell us what we already suspected," Post said in an email to The Daily Republic.

He said the fact that the party has a voter registration advantage of 55,000 more people than Democrats, plus other factors, means "we're in a great position to gain that (Senate) seat."

PPP is seen as a highly accurate firm, according to published reports, but because of its client base, it is also perceived to lean Democratic. The release offers hope for both parties in 2014.

"South Dakota provides a good opportunity for Republicans in 2014 but these numbers suggest that it won't be the end of the world for Democrats if Johnson ends up deciding to retire, given Herseth Sandlin's popularity, and the potential for a highly divisive GOP primary that could give Democrats an opportunity to replicate some of their other red state wins over the last few election cycles," it states.

One Democrat who didn't get much good news in the poll is President Obama. The president has a 57 percent disapproval rating in South Dakota, while 38 percent approve of his performance in office.

PPP interviewed 1,069 South Dakotans, who identified themselves as 49 percent Republicans, 37 percent Democrat and 15 percent "other."

-- The Daily Republic's Denise Ross contributed to this report.