Hyper-competitive Senate season kicks off in South Dakota

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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The 2014 South Dakota Senate race has officially been set in motion, with the long-expected announcement Tuesday by Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson that he will not seek re-election next year.

The race is widely considered to be a tough battle, and observers do not believe Johnson’s decision will change that.

On the Democratic side, the two major contenders are Johnson’s son, U.S. Attorney for the District of South Dakota Brendan Johnson, and former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, who lost her seat to Republican Rep. Kristi Noem in 2010.

The only Republican officially in the race, former Gov. Mike Rounds, announced that he was running back in November, almost two full years before the election. He said he was going to run whether or not Johnson opted to retire.

Rounds is seen as a strong candidate. He is a very popular former governor — 51 percent of South Dakotans said they had a favorable opinion of him in a Public Policy Polling poll released last week – and by getting in early, he has given himself a fundraising advantage over any potential competitor.

“You know I don’t know that things have necessarily changed,” said Rob Skjonsberg, who is working with Rounds’ campaign. “It doesn’t throw this major wrench into what our planning process has been.”

In the hours since Johnson’s announcements, questions have swirled about whether Rounds, who is considered a moderate Republican by South Dakota standards, will face a primary challenger from the right. Senate Conservatives Fund, a national group originally founded by Jim DeMint to support more conservative candidates, said Tuesday that it would not support Rounds and is looking for an alternative candidate to back.

“We’re looked at his record and surveyed our members in the state and concluded he’s just too liberal for the job. We cannot support him, but we’ll be looking for a conservative alternative,” Matt Hoskins, executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund, told Political Smokeout.

Skjonsberg told The Daily Caller that Rounds met with SCF last week, and that “from the beginning an endorsement certainly wasn’t on the table.”

“They pretty much let him know fairly soon in the discussion that this was not necessarily about policy or things that you think are relevant in this kind of race,” Skjonsberg said, adding that the conversation was in fact about whether he would be willing to commit to a change in Senate leadership.

Rounds, Sjkonsberg said, “doesn’t take pledges,” and especially not ones that would oust South Dakota’s sitting Republican senator, John Thune, who serves as the Republican Conference chair.

Hoskins describes the meeting differently.

“We didn’t ask Mike Rounds if he would pledge to oppose the current Senate GOP leadership. We asked him if he would pledge to support them. He said he would not,” Hoskins told The Daily Caller.

“We spent the entire interview talking with him about policy and on every issue he refused to take a clear position. Instead, he hid behind his pledge not to make pledges,” Hoskins said. “So we asked him if he would at least pledge to back the leadership team in the Senate. He said ‘no’ because he doesn’t make pledges. We disagree with his no-pledge policy, but on this point he was at least consistent in our interview.”

Sjkonsberg said the campaign is not particularly concerned about a possible primary. Rounds, he said, is “certainly not opposed or afraid of a primary,” noting that he has faced multiple primaries in prior races.

It is unclear who would take on Rounds in a primary. South Dakota’s lone member of Congress, Rep. Kristi Noem, would seem to be the obvious first choice, but she has not yet shown any inclinations one way or the other.

One South Dakota Republican familiar with the politics expressed skepticism that SCF would find a credible challenger if Noem opted out.

“I know they have been out in South Dakota trying to find somebody to run and they’ve been turned down” by a number of people, the Republican said, adding that they the last person who had supposedly been approached by them was not a serious candidate.

“They need a good candidate, a top-tier candidate to win that primary, and I don’t think they have that,” the Republican said.

“I just find it very difficult to believe that anybody other than Noem is a really serious challenger to Rounds,” echoed Jon Schaff, a political science professor at Northern State University.

Without her in the race, Schaff said, “the general consensus is that Mike Rounds would waltz into the Senate seat.”

On the Democratic side, Schaff said, it is a question of “how quickly do the Democrats announce for the race?” and whether or not there is a primary.

Schaff noted that there is an “appropriate time of mourning” after a Senator announces retirement, during which time it would appear disrespectful to announce a bid for his seat. But after that, he said, Democrats will need to get in quickly – by May or June — if they want to compete financially with already popular Rounds, who has already raised just under $270,000, and will by then have a six or seven month head start on fundraising.

For Johnson, that means resigning his position as U.S. Attorney to escape the Hatch Act’s prohibition on any type of campaigning while holding that office.

Johnson is already facing a “charge of nepotism,” Schaff said. Republicans have long said that the elder Johnson helped secure the U.S. Attorney appointment for his son – and the Senator did get involved more than he said he would. Over the past few weeks, there has been talk that, in a similar vein, the Senator was trying to line up a plum political position for his son with the senate seat.

Johnson, said Schaff, “has to fight the impression that he’s running for office not in his own right, but simply because he’s got the right last name.”

Pat Powers, who writes the Republican blog South Dakota War College, noted that South Dakota has a history of electing the family members of people it elected previously. But usually, he said, it’s “a bridge of decades between each family member running.”

The immediacy of the pass from father to son, Powers said, inspires fewer warm feelings of nostalgia. Rather, he said, it feels like “we’re replacing one Johnson with another.”

Herseth Sandlin is seen as a less liberal and more moderate candidate than Brendan Johnson. While her possible run has received  less attention, according to the PPP poll, she would start out as the stronger candidate.

Fifty-two percent of South Dakotans hold a favorable opinion of her, and 37 percent have an unfavorable view. Johnson, by contrast, is an unknown quantity in the state: 58 percent say they are not sure what their opinion of him is, while 25 percent say it is favorable and 17 percent unfavorable.

In a matchup against Noem, Herseth Sandlin narrowly edges her former rival, 48 percent to 47 percent. Against Rounds, she trails by five points, 44 percent to 49 percent. Johnson, by contrast, trails Noem by 12 points and Rounds by 21 points, though his low name recognition likely contributes to that tally.

Democrats contend that Rounds’ numbers are soft, and could be brought down by a focused advertising campaign attacking him.

Neither Johnson nor Herseth Sandlin has yet announced that they will pursue the seat. If they both decide to run, Republicans contend that a primary on that side would be hugely problematic.

“A primary would be pretty destructive, waste a lot of money and time,” said the Republican source speaking on background.

The race is expected to be one of the most competitive in the country in 2014.

*This post has been updated with Hoskins’ description of his meeting with Rounds.

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Alexis Levinson