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The potential for a high-profile Democratic squabble to succeed South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson — who is widely expected to retire — has grabbed the spotlight of the race so far.
But the possibility of an equally contentious Republican primary is brewing beneath the surface.
For now, the Republican field remains a party of one. Former Gov. Mike Rounds, who jumped into the race in November, is viewed by Republican leaders from Washington, D.C., to Sioux Falls, S.D., as a top-tier recruit. If nominated, Republicans believe Rounds would put the party in a strong position to win one of the GOP’s best pickup opportunities.
However, Rounds is highly unlikely to have a free ride to the nomination, local GOP sources said. South Dakota conservative activists are desperately seeking an alternative to Rounds, a moderate whose eight-year tenure enraged many in the right wing of the party.
While they await a decision from Rep. Kristi Noem, who would offer Rounds a stiff challenge in the primary, one other potential candidate is state Senate Majority Whip Larry Rhoden.
“I think that it’s safe to say that there are a number of people in the state that would like a choice in addition to former Gov. Rounds,” Rhoden said in an phone interview. “I have had some conversations with many folks along that line. I certainly haven’t made any decisions but haven’t ruled it out at the same token.”
Rhoden added that any potential challenger to Rounds will have to weigh the former governor’s fundraising head start as part of the decision.
Rounds is well-connected and expected to excel at fundraising. He’s scheduled to attend a meet and greet near the White House next week hosted by former Mississippi GOP Gov. Haley Barbour.
Rounds certainly puts the seat in play for Republicans, but Noem is the candidate that conservatives want. That option remains on the table, a source close to Noem said, but she is unlikely to make a final decision any time soon — meaning a potential Rounds-Noem duel could hover over the race for the foreseeable future.
“She is still considering a run for Senate,” the source said, “but right now she thinks it’s too early, people are sick of politics and she’s focused on doing the best job she can for South Dakota.”
Some South Dakota Republican insiders believe Noem will ultimately take a pass, but even if she does, there are several others believed to be taking a look at the race.