South Dakota Senate Seat Remains a Pure Toss-Up…For Now

March 26, 2013 · 11:38 AM EDT

Not every retirement is a game-changer. Democrats were going to have a difficult time defending the South Dakota Senate seat with or without Sen. Tim Johnson (D). But now that the senator has made his decision not to seek re-election, the playing field to replace him can start to solidify.

For a rare open seat in The Mount Rushmore State, the field of candidates (or at least the discussion) has narrowed to four candidates: former Gov. Mike Rounds (R), Rep. Kristi Noem (R), former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D), and U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson (D), the senator’s son.

Rounds has been running for months and should post good first quarter fundraising numbers when they come due in the middle of next month. But the former governor is not beloved by conservatives and is not regarded as battle tested. In 2002, the GOP gubernatorial primary devolved into a nasty battle between two well-funded frontrunners and Rounds. But Rounds emerged victorious with 44 percent and went on to win the general election with 57 percent . He was re-elected with 62 percent four years later.

In spite of Rounds’ candidacy, Noem is being encouraged to consider the race, primarily by conservatives who are not enthusiastic about the former governor. She has already been elected statewide twice as South Dakota’s at-large member of Congress after defeating Herseth Sandlin in 2010 by two points. The congresswoman should not have any trouble raising money. She spent $2.7 million in her re-election race last year and finished the year with $134,000 in the bank.

On the Democratic side, it’s no secret that Brendan Johnson has been very active recently with his father’s retirement rumors circulating. The young attorney does not have a legislative voting record that he would have to defend, but he has also never run for office before, and an early public poll showed that the senator’s standing is not immediately transferable.

It’s no secret that Herseth Sandlin would welcome an opportunity to return to elected office. But it is not clear when or for which office. Her grandfather served as governor and her father ran for governor, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she will challenge Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R) next year. Unlike Brendan Johnson, Herseth Sandlin has been elected statewide four times, but she has also lost statewide twice (2002 and 2010).

The challenge for any Democrat is the terrain. Mitt Romney just won the state by 18 points last fall, and the last Democratic presidential nominee to win South Dakota was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Of course, the state did send two Democrats to the Senate from 1996 to 2004, when Majority Leader Tom Daschle was defeated by Republican John Thune.

A recent Public Policy Polling (D) (IVR) survey showed both Rounds and Noem ahead of both Johnsons. Rounds held a narrow lead over Sandlin, while a matchup between Sandlin and Noem was virtually even. President Barack Obama’s job rating in the poll was 38 percent approve/57 percent disapprove.

The other challenge for Democrats is that even though there is the potential for a competitive Republican primary, neither Rounds nor Noem look like the the type of polarizing candidate who has given Republicans problems in other states over the last two cycles.

We’re keeping this race as a Pure Toss-Up for now, but that might be giving Democrats a false sense of hope.