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South Dakota Senate Race Ripe for Republican Primary

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Noem is popular among South Dakota conservatives and may be considering a Senate bid, although sources said she is unlikely to make a decision any time soon.

Conservative former state Sen. Bill Napoli said that if Noem doesn’t run, he would consider filing paperwork to establish an exploratory committee and asking for financial pledges — which he did in a brief 2006 gubernatorial bid.

Still, there is not an organized conservative grass-roots effort yet, GOP sources said, and conservative outside groups have not yet homed in on the race. The absence of funding and organization would make mounting a competitive bid an even steeper climb without Noem.

Conservatives are concerned that Rounds will once again slide into statewide elected office. He benefited in 2002 from a bitter three-way gubernatorial primary, when the two better-financed candidates focused their attacks on each other and ultimately allowed Rounds to differentiate himself as the more positive of the three.

Former state Sen. Gordon Howie, who runs a conservative organization called the Life and Liberty Group, said he has so far been unsuccessful in recruiting a candidate to run. But he said he’s doing everything he can to encourage Noem.

“We just don’t believe his record is conservative,” Howie said of Rounds. “He’s a nice man. I would have coffee with him. But I won’t vote for him.”

Meanwhile, the Democratic primary could feature an epic contest between the state party’s two most powerful brands. U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, who is Tim Johnson’s son, and former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, who lost to Noem by 2 points in 2010, are both believed to be seriously considering running — even though the elder Johnson has not yet formally announced his plans for 2014.

Democrats have a strong recent track record when it comes to avoiding crippling primaries, and the party hopes to avoid what would likely be an expensive nominating fight.

This is one of the party’s most vulnerable seats, with or without Johnson running for re-election. On the other hand, the GOP’s hopes of taking the Senate majority rely on picking up this vital and vulnerable seat.

But thanks to the influence of outside issue-based groups, Republicans in recent cycles have been less successful navigating primaries, the result of which has facilitated the loss of several winnable seats and left the party six seats from the majority.

“Mike had pretty strong approval ratings all through his eight years, and I think taking him on for any other Republican would be difficult,” South Dakota GOP Chairman Craig Lawrence said. “But we certainly welcome them to join in the fray if that’s what they want.”

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