Democrats Divided in South Dakota Senate Race

Posted April 22, 2013 at 4:41pm

Democrats are publicly patient while two familiar faces — U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson and former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin — consider a bid for the open South Dakota Senate seat.

But in Washington, D.C., the party’s silence speaks volumes: They’re waiting for Herseth Sandlin to decide whether she will run for retiring Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson’s seat in 2014.

It’s a pivotal race for Democrats. Senate Republicans must net six seats next year to win the majority — and one of them could be in South Dakota, reliable GOP territory.

At this time, Democratic leaders are publicly claiming impartiality. They say either Johnson or Herseth Sandlin can run a formidable race against former Gov. Mike Rounds, a Republican running for the seat, and two-term Rep. Kristi Noem, another potential GOP candidate.

But privately, Democratic leaders say they’re not likely to make any public moves on the race until Herseth Sandlin decides either way. While she considers, key backers in South Dakota and Washington are holding back on public statements of support.

“A lot of folks are waiting and seeing, keeping their powder dry to see what Stephanie decides to do,” said Ben Nesselhuf, the chairman of the South Dakota Democratic Party. “And I think she has earned a window of opportunity here.”

Another reason: Democrats don’t want to encourage Herseth Sandlin before it’s clear that she will run. Otherwise, they could hurt their eventual nominee — perhaps Brendan Johnson, if he decides to run.

The younger Johnson isn’t allowed to speak publicly about politics given his current position with the government. His father declined to comment to CQ Roll Call on his son’s immediate plans.

Sources say, however, he is also privately weighing a run for the elder Johnson’s seat. He is well-liked in South Dakota and has already gained a grass-roots following of local Democrats who are not waiting for Herseth Sandlin.

Ryan Casey, chairman of the Lincoln County Democratic Party, is heading the campaign to compel Brendan Johnson to run for the seat. Joining Casey are the chairmen of six other county Democratic parties throughout the state and Scott Heidepriem, South Dakota’s 2010 Democratic gubernatorial nominee.

The “Draft Brendan Johnson” movement had been in the works for some time before Tim Johnson’s retirement announcement late last month, Casey said. He and other supporters, he continued, wanted to help a “good progressive candidate” to jump into the fray should the seat become open, which seemed likely.

“We’re trying to really make the effort to build momentum and consensus … and make it clear that if and when he does enter the race, he’ll be able to enter from a strong position,” Casey said, adding that Brendan Johnson would “stand up for core Democratic values.”

Herseth Sandlin, he said, signaled alarm bells for progressives with her opposition to President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul bill, among other things.

Casey hasn’t spoken to Brendan Johnson directly. He also hasn’t heard from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee or anyone else in D.C. who might urge the Draft Brendan Johnson movement to stand down for the time being.

A moderate Democrat and leader of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, Herseth Sandlin held South Dakota’s at-large House seat from 2004 to 2011. She lost re-election in 2010 to Noem by mere points.

After losing re-election, Herseth Sandlin stayed in Washington to work in the lobby practice of Olsson Frank Weeda. In May 2012, she moved back to South Dakota to take a new job as general counsel of Raven Industries and to be closer to her husband and young son.

The move raised suspicion that she could be replanting her home-state roots for a future run for office, but so far she hasn’t indicated the extent of her political aspirations. Calls from CQ Roll Call to her office at Raven Industries went unreturned, but it’s no secret she’s giving the 2014 Senate race consideration.

The DSCC declined to comment on which candidate it is recruiting for the South Dakota senate seat. But a national Democratic strategist familiar with the state’s political landscape said he doubts it will come down to a primary.

If Democratic officials want to avoid a primary, however, Herseth Sandlin should make up her mind soon, Nesselhuf said. Johnson, emboldened by the groundswell of support, could decide to just jump in the race, blocking out Herseth Sandlin entirely.

“My impression from talking to folks is, she has a rapidly closing window if she wants to get in,” Nesselhuf said. “If she’s going to do it, the sooner she gets in, the better.”