Updated 2:00 p.m. | U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson's resignation could mean Democrats have found a potential candidate to challenge Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., in 2016.
Johnson, the son of former Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., announced Wednesday he will join a private law firm in Sioux Falls. As a U.S. Attorney, Johnson was prohibited from engaging in politics; as a private lawyer, he would be free to launch a campaign.
"One of the things that I’m not going to do while I’m U.S. Attorney, and I’ve never done, is to discuss politics," Johnson told CQ Roll Call in a phone call Wednesday after the press conference announcing his resignation. "I realize that other people will, but the fact of the matter is I’ve had very good relationships with our entire congressional delegation, I’ve enjoyed very much working with them over the last few years."
His resignation as U.S. Attorney takes effect on March 11.
Johnson is one of two Democrats who party operatives say could make the race against Thune competitive. The race is currently rated Safe Republican by the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report. Some South Dakota operatives have posited that Johnson might instead choose to challenge Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D. That would also be an uphill battle for any Democratic nominee.
True to his word, Johnson demurred when asked if he was considering a Senate or House bid.
"My focus right now is exclusively on building a legal practice and anything different would likely require significant upsell with my wife," he said.
With $9.7 million in his war chest, Thune will not be an easy target. Republican consultant Dick Wadhams, a former Thune campaign manager, likened the task to a “kamikaze mission” for the Democratic nominee.
In 2014, Democrats briefly played in the South Dakota Senate race despite fielding a third-tier candidate, Rick Weiland, for the open-seat race against now-Sen. Mike Rounds. Former Sen. Larry Pressler, who served as a Republican, ran as independent , giving Democrats an odd potential opening in the race. But Rounds went on to defeat Weiland by 20 points.
Democrats consider Johnson to be a more serious contender than Weiland. Johnson's last name gives him a boost in South Dakota, a state Romney won with 58 percent in 2012. Also, Johnson's father reported $829,000 in his Senate campaign account at the end of last year.
Democrats view Johnson and former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., who opted against a run last year, as the party's top two potential recruits. Johnson also declined to run in 2014.
Johnson said he has a "very close relationship" with his father and talks to him "daily" about his own career, but not about whether it might take a political turn in the future.
"We haven’t spent a lot of time talking about future political races," the younger Johnson said. "What we do is we talk about his grandkids, we talk about how basketball season’s going for his grandkids, and about my next steps professionally."
In 2014, Republicans leveled charges of nepotism , accusing the senator of trying to create a “dynasty.” The comments echoed accusations from the junior Johnson's nomination to U.S. Attorney in 2009, when his father made inquiries about the state of his son’s nomination — something Republicans said was unduly helping him. At the time, the senator told Politico he had not exerted any influence.
Those charges would likely be reprised if Johnson runs for Senate. The National Republican Senatorial Committee raised the issue Wednesday in a press release, saying “his father had to pull a few strings” to get him confirmed as U.S. Attorney.
"I appreciate that they have their job to do, and I’ve been around this stuff long enough that I’ve grown pretty thick skinned," Johnson said, when asked about the comments. "It’s part of the process. I don’t lose a lot of sleep over it and don’t hold any ill will toward anyone."
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