Feb. 9, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Democrats Divided in South Dakota Senate Race

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Privately, Democratic leaders say they’re not likely to make any public moves on the race until Herseth Sandlin decides either way.

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.

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