A GOP Senate Switch in South Dakota Looks More Likely

by Stuart Rothenberg May 16, 2013 · 3:58 PM EDT

Former Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin’s announcement that she is passing on a Senate race in 2014, combined with secondhand reports that U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson (son of retiring South Dakota Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson) has also decided against a Senate bid, must have put big smiles on the faces of Republican strategists.

It’s early in the 2014 election cycle, but these developments in the Mount Rushmore State definitely affect the two parties’ prospects. The GOP now has an advantage in the contest.

Former GOP Gov. Mike Rounds is already in the race. But the lack of a big name Democratic standard-bearer could encourage the state’s at-large congresswoman, Kristi Noem, to enter the Republican primary.

Noem would be a formidable fundraiser, and conservative support might well coalesce around her.

Some Republican insiders are even speculating that Herseth Sandlin passed on the Senate race in the hope of getting Noem to run for the Senate, allowing the Democrat to jump into the race for her old House seat.

Democrats won’t be without a credible Senate candidate, however. Rick Weiland, a former aide to ex-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, has announced his candidacy and has already won the support of his former boss.

But Weiland’s record of success in running for federal office isn’t good. He lost by about 20 points in 1996, when he faced Republican John Thune in an open House seat contest after Tim Johnson had decided to run for the Senate. Weiland then lost a Democratic primary to Herseth in 2002, when Thune left his House seat to run for the Senate. (Thune lost that race by 524 votes to Johnson but came back two years later to defeat Daschle.)

I remember Weiland, and he wasn’t a bad candidate. But that’s not the same thing as saying that he has Herseth Sandlin’s demonstrated skills or Brendan Johnson’s obvious asset (his family name) in a general election, especially during a midterm election with Barack Obama in the White House.

Bob Burns, a South Dakota State University political science professor, is quoted in an article in the Argus-Leader questioning whether someone like Weiland could win, or whether Democrats needed a moderate like Herseth Sandlin.

Without Herseth Sandlin, Democrats’ prospects of retaining this seat sink. A formal announcement from Brendan Johnson that he isn’t interested would be another blow to Democratic hopes. But even now, Tim Johnson’s South Dakota Senate seat looks increasingly likely to switch parties next year.