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South Dakota Republicans Await Thune's 2016 Decision

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
If Thune runs for president in 2016, he will have to give up his Senate seat because state law prevents him from appearing on the ballot twice.

Congressional opportunities in South Dakota have always been few and far between.

So when one does arise for one of the two Senate seats or the at-large House seat, candidates quickly jump at the chance to represent the Mount Rushmore State on Capitol Hill. But longtime Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson’s retirement this cycle presents the first open-seat Senate opportunity in South Dakota since 1978, when Democratic Sen. James Abourezk retired.

Former Gov. Mike Rounds, the presumed front-runner among a handful of Republicans, was the fastest to leap at the open Senate seat. With two top Democratic recruits taking a pass, Rick Weiland, a former Senate aide and congressional candidate, is the lone Democrat in the race and a heavy underdog to win the seat in this Republican-leaning state.

For aspiring South Dakota pols looking for the next opportunity to ascend to Congress, the focus now shifts to Republican Sen. John Thune and his possible presidential ambitions.

Thune’s second Senate term is up in 2016 and because South Dakota law does not allow candidates to appear on the ballot twice, he’d have to give up his Senate seat if he were to run for president.

Thune briefly considered a bid in 2012, but decided against entering that crowded GOP primary. If he takes the presidential leap in 2016, GOP operatives say, Republican Rep. Kristi Noem would likely run in that Senate contest — and, in turn, clear the field of other strong Republican contenders.

Noem’s open, at-large House district would then draw a barrage of interest from up-and-coming Republican hopefuls, of which GOP strategists in South Dakota say there are many.

“The Republican bench in South Dakota right now is like the [New York] Yankees: We’ve just got a deep bench and a great record,” said Craig Lawrence, chairman of the South Dakota GOP.

Potential Republican congressional hopefuls include:

• South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley. Of the deep bench of GOP pols in the state, multiple Republican operatives named Jackley as one of the brightest stars.

• State Rep. Mark Mickelson, a businessman and Harvard Law graduate whose surname is synonymous with South Dakota politics. Mickelson’s father, George S. Mickelson, was governor of the state from 1987 to 1993. His grandfather, George T. Mickelson, was governor from 1947 until 1951.

• State Rep. Shantel Krebs, who is currently vying for the state’s open secretary of state position.

• Dusty Johnson, chief of staff to current South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who GOP operatives say is a rising star among the state’s political class.

On the Democratic side, operatives from both parties say the bench is thinner. Despite the state’s large group of registered independents, South Dakota has trended more and more Republican over the past few cycles.

However, operatives say a bright spot for the Democratic Party is Brendan Johnson. He’s the son of retiring Sen. Tim Johnson and a U.S. attorney in South Dakota. Democrats say the younger Johnson could run for a number of spots in the coming years, including future bids for governor, Senate or the at-large House seat — though he turned down the opportunity to run in 2014 for his father’s seat.

Democratic operatives add that former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., the first woman elected to Congress from South Dakota, is also a strong candidate who could make another credible run for office. Of course, Herseth Sandlin also declined to run for the current Senate opening, and it’s unclear whether future political bids are in store for her.

Farm Team is a weekly state-by-state look at the up-and-coming politicos who may eventually run for Congress.

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