Senate Vacancy Could Topple Many Dominoes

Posted September 17, 2007 at 6:41pm

With Sen. Tim Johnson (D) back at work and planning to run for re-election, and most top-tier Republicans uninterested in running for federal office this cycle, it would appear that little change is on the horizon in South Dakota prior to at least 2010 — unless Johnson suddenly decides to retire. [IMGCAP(1)]

But that doesn’t mean the Republican- leaning state doesn’t have its share of ambitious politicians waiting for just the right time to call themselves up from their parties’ respective farm teams and try their shot at the big leagues.

The GOP controls the Legislature and most statewide elective offices. But that doesn’t mean Democrats — who hold two of South Dakota’s three Congressional seats — don’t have some stars-in-waiting of their own.

Still, the Republicans maintain the bigger bench — and that fact sustains them even as their prospects for ousting Johnson and picking up Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin’s (D) seat in 2008 remain bleak.

“The bench of upcoming candidates for the South Dakota Republican Party is extremely strong. We’re fortunate to have a lot of very qualified people,” said Max Wetz, executive director of the state GOP. “The future looks bright for the party.”

Johnson suffered a brain aneurysm in December but is now back at work after months of physical and occupational rehabilitation therapy, and he intends to run for re-election next year.

However, illness and a nearly nine-month absence from the public stage caused much speculation over who would replace him if he retired — and how such a retirement might affect South Dakota’s lone, at-large House seat.

Though she consistently has declined to comment, it is widely assumed by both Democrats and Republicans that Herseth Sandlin will run for Senate whenever Johnson’s seat opens up.

Johnson and Herseth Sandlin are popular and considered strong incumbents. Each is favored to win re-election at this point, although Johnson’s illness has complicated his political prognosis somewhat.

If and when Herseth Sandlin ever vacates her House seat, look for Brendan Johnson (D), a Sioux Falls attorney and the son of Sen. Johnson, to run to replace the Congresswoman, say Democrats with knowledge of South Dakota politics.

State Senate Minority Leader Scott Heidepriem (D), a former Republican from Sioux Falls, also is thought of as a top-tier House candidate — though both he and Brendan Johnson could be tapped to run for Senate if Herseth Sandlin declined to do so, either in the event of Sen. Johnson’s retirement or when Sen. John Thune (R) is up in 2010.

Also talked about as potential Congressional candidates are state Sen. Nancy Turbak (D), of Watertown, and Rapid City’s Eric Abrahamson, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in 2006.

One Democratic strategist familiar with South Dakota referred to Heidepriem and Johnson as the “consensus top guys” among state Democrats to run for Congress the next time an opportunity arises.

On the Republican side, there are no shortage of political heavyweights. Thune ousted then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) in 2004 and remains popular, with second-term Gov. Mike Rounds (R) also well-liked by Coyote State voters.

The problem for the GOP — at least this cycle — is that most of South Dakota’s high-profile Republicans are spurning Washington, D.C., and a chance to run for federal office, and are instead setting their sights on the state capital of Pierre and the opportunity to run for higher state office next.

Rounds has not ruled out running for Senate and might still come to the GOP’s rescue next year — especially if Tim Johnson retires.

But absent Rounds, Republicans might be forced to rely on state Rep. Joel Dykstra, who already has announced his candidacy, as their standard-bearer. Businessman Sam Kephart (R) is running as well, though he is considered even less of a threat than Dykstra.

Republicans are facing similar recruiting challenges in the House race — although there are some potential candidates thought of as sleepers who, if they ran, could cause Herseth Sandlin some problems.

Among those are Thune Chief of Staff Matt Zabel (R), former Thune campaign aide Larry Russell (R), state Rep. Deb Peters (R), state Rep. Shantel Krebs (R) and Sioux Falls City Councilman Pat Costello (R).

Krebs, a Sioux Falls businesswoman whose husband is Rounds’ press secretary, is giving serious consideration to running next year, as is Russell, Republicans familiar with Coyote State politics say.

Rapid City businessman and community leader Chris Lien (R) also is considering a House bid in 2008. Lien is president of Birdsall Sand & Gravel and sits on both the Rapid City and South Dakota chambers of commerce.

Republicans on the A-list giving federal office a pass this cycle — but who would likely cause Democrats loads of trouble if they ever did decide to run — include Lt. Gov. Dennis Daugaard; Kelby Krabbenhoft, a possible self-funder who is president and CEO of Sioux Valley Hospitals & Health System; and state Senate Majority Leader Dave Knudson.

Daugaard already has announced for the 2010 gubernatorial race. Knudson is still considering the 2010 gubernatorial race, while Krabbenhoft has announced that a run for federal office in 2008 is off the table.