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South Dakota Republicans have begun jockeying for position in next year’s House and Senate races but they remain stymied by the uncertainty surrounding Sen. Tim Johnson’s (D) illness and the political peril involved in attacking the incumbent while he recovers.

Johnson’s office continues to assert that the Senator plans to run for re-election. But skeptical Republicans are preparing for the possibility Johnson will retire and that Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D) will run to replace him, creating an attractive, open at-large House seat that could also draw as a candidate the Senator’s son, Sioux Falls attorney Brendan Johnson (D).

Further complicating the recruiting efforts of the GOP Congressional campaign committees is that some of the Republicans considered best equipped to oust the Democratic incumbents in 2008 are angling to run for governor in 2010. South Dakota leans Republican, but both Johnson and Herseth Sandlin are popular, and challenging them would be difficult — even in a presidential cycle.

“There are some good candidates whose eyes are really on the governor’s seat,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). “That’s probably the more attractive seat right now.”

“There are people who are interested in federal offices, too, and we’ve got some good candidates,” Thune continued. “But until [Johnson’s] situation is clarified a little bit, it will be harder to determine which ones are going to start coming to the surface.”

Meanwhile, Republicans remain boxed-in politically by Johnson’s health, even as the Senator’s staff and his Democratic colleagues lay the foundation for his re-election bid.

Not only have Republicans declined to attack Johnson in deference to his continuing recovery from a Dec. 13 stroke, but his absence from the Senate this year means he has not had to make what could have been a series of politically difficult votes on the Iraq War, immigration and the budget that the GOP could use against him in a campaign.

Still, Johnson’s staff doesn’t appear to be taking this extended stretch of partisan goodwill for granted.

When Sioux Falls businessman Randy Amundson argued in a May 5 opinion piece in the Argus Leader newspaper that Johnson should level with voters about his condition and suggested he is “neglecting” his constitutional duties, the Senator’s chief of staff, Drey Samuelson, responded swiftly.

“I took offense at his piece,” Samuelson wrote in a May 16 column. “I take pride in the fact that, throughout this ordeal, the Johnson family and our Senate staff have been honest about Johnson’s condition.”

Johnson spokeswoman Julianne Fisher said the Senator meets regularly with Samuelson, and she described him as “mentally sharp.” He’s in therapy five days a week, including two days a week at the National Rehabilitation Hospital, with a focus on learning how to write with his left hand and regaining his ability to walk.

“Things are still on pace,” Fisher said. “His colleagues have committed to helping him raise money and are still holding fundraisers for him so he can concentrate on therapy.”

Johnson raised $665,000 in the first quarter of this year to close with $1.2 million in cash on hand, and he appears to be off to a healthy financial start this quarter, especially considering he remains completely out of the public eye save for pictures released periodically by his Congressional office.

Upcoming fundraisers for Johnson include a June 14 event scheduled to feature the entire Senate Democratic Caucus, as well as three smaller gatherings hosted by Democratic Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.), respectively.

With Johnson’s 2008 plans still murky, several top Republicans are hedging. These potential candidates are waiting to see how the Democratic field shakes out before deciding whether to run for House, Senate or governor, as popular Gov. Mike Rounds (R) is termed out in 2010.

Rounds, who was just re-elected in November, is a prime example of how Johnson has forced Republicans to put their political plans on hold. Sources said the governor is not inclined to run for Senate but is particularly less likely to do so if Johnson stands for re-election.

State Rep. Joel Dykstra’s (R) situation is similar. He recently attended the candidate-training school for prospective House candidates that the National Republican Congressional Committee held in Washington, D.C. But Dykstra said in an interview that he is more interested in running for Senate, although he is waiting to see which Democrat he would be running against before deciding on whether to run at all — and for which seat.

“I’m exploring my options for 2008, and in particular should I run for House or Senate,” Dykstra said.

Former Thune campaign aide Larry Russell is another Republican talked up as a potentially formidable House candidate who is waiting for the Democratic playing field to solidify before making a decision.

Russell finished a close second to then-state Sen. Larry Diedrich (R) in the South Dakota GOP’s 2004 convention to select a nominee to run in a special election to replace former Rep. Bill Janklow (R), who resigned in 2003 after being convicted of vehicular manslaughter.

“If Johnson is unable to run and Herseth Sandlin decides to run for Senate and there becomes an open House seat, I suppose I would probably take a look at it,” Russell said. “I’m getting a lot of encouragement from around the state.”

Other Republicans touted as potential top-tier House candidates include Thune Chief of Staff Matt Zabel and state Rep. Deb Peters. Zabel declined to comment for this story, saying through a spokesman for Thune only that he is “happy working for Sen. Thune.”

In addition to Rounds, potential top-tier GOP Senate candidates include Lt. Gov. Dennis Daugaard; Kelby Krabbenhoft, a possible self-funder who is president and CEO of Sioux Valley Hospitals & Health System; and state Senate Majority Leader Dave Knudson. In an interview, Knudson said he also is exploring a gubernatorial run in 2010.

“To some extent you could run for both [Senator and governor], depending on the outcome of the first race,” Knudson said. “I probably fall into the ‘thinking about it’ category in terms of the Senate race.”

Though Democrats and Republicans who follow South Dakota politics are nearly unanimous in their belief that Herseth Sandlin will run for Senate if Johnson retires, her office declined to discuss the possibility. A spokesman for the Congresswoman would say only that she expects Johnson to run for re-election and looks forward to supporting him.

Herseth Sandlin raised $167,476 in the first quarter of the year and closed March with almost $330,000 in cash on hand. Her office said she has an active fundraising schedule and a campaign operative on the ground in South Dakota.

“Obviously, challenging Herseth is a steep, uphill climb. She’s tough to beat,” said one Republican operative familiar with South Dakota. “But it’s a red state, and should the House seat open, our chances look pretty good.”

If Herseth Sandlin transitions to the Senate race, Brendan Johnson, 31, is among the few Democrats mentioned as formidable enough to give the party a chance of holding the seat, at least in a presidential year when Republican turnout is likely to be magnified. Also mentioned on that short list is state Senate Minority Leader Scott Heidepriem (D), a former Republican.

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