Johnson Decision Opens U.S. Senate Race

Mar 27, 2013

The race is wide open for one of South Dakota’s seats in the United States Senate. Tuesday current Senator Tim Johnson announced he won’t run next year for re-election. Johnson isn’t resigning his seat, but he’s also not looking to keep it beyond 2014.

Sen. Tim Johnson, March 2013
Credit Kent Osborne / SDPB

Some call it the worst kept secret in South Dakota politics. Now U.S. Senator Tim Johnson has made it official. He’s not running for another term in Washington.

"I will be 68 years old at the end of this term, and it is time for me to say goodbye," Johnson says. "I will not be running for re-election for U-S Senate in 2014 or any other office."

Johnson became a member of the United States Congress in 1986 when South Dakota voters sent him to D.C. as a U.S. Representative. After five terms in the House, Johnson ran for a seat in the United States Senate against an incumbent Republican.

Former U.S. Senator Larry Pressler says he’s let go of what happened 17 years ago. Pressler lost his seat to Johnson in what he says was a bitter campaign laden with outside influences on all sides. Now Pressler says he considers Johnson a friend. He later endorsed Johnson and says he’s been an outstanding Senator.

"So I congratulate him at the end of his time. I tell him that there is life after the Senate," Presser says. "The best thing that happened to me was losing that Senate race from a personal point of view, because I’d been there for 22 years, and that’s long enough."

That may have been long enough for Pressler, but Johnson’s spent even more time on Capitol Hill. When his Senate term ends, Johnson’s service in Washington measures 28 years. Johnson beat now-U.S. Senator John Thune during his first re-election campaign and won yet again, despite beating cancer and then suffering bleeding in his brain. 

"I feel great! But I must be honest, and I appreciate that my right arm and right leg as it used to be, and my speech is not entirely there," Johnson says.

Johnson says he’s in his late sixties and has other things to do.

“First of all, you know—we have to tip our hat to Senator Johnson; he’s done a tremendous job in the 26 years he’s been in Washington," South Dakota Democratic Party chair Ben Nesselhuf says. "You know, there’s a reason he’s the most successful political figure in the State of South Dakota, and it’s because he put his head down and he got to work, and I think South Dakotans respect that.”

Senator Johnson’s decision against running for re-election means Republicans don’t have to battle an incumbent for the Congressional seat. So far, former South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds is the only GOP candidate who’s announced a campaign. Nesselhuf says he’s confident in potential Democratic candidates considering the race.

"I think the Governor has some glaring holes in his record, that in a competitive campaign would be exposed.  This isn’t a governor’s race—I mean in the governor’s races he’s run, he’s been able to outspend his opponents two-to-one and really stay above the fray, and you can’t do that in a Senate race," Nesselhuf says. "I think in rough-and-tumble senate race politics, he’s in real trouble.”

Nesselhuf’s GOP counterpart Craig Lawrence says there’s more to 2014’s race. The Republican has known Johnson since they were in college.

"We pause to say thank you for being willing to serve, but then we say, ‘Okay! Now the race is on!’ We’re electrified about putting up a good candidate which, for now, it looks like it’s Mike Rounds, and we’re gonna go after it," Lawrence says.

Lawrence says running for an open seat is a different kind of race than challenging an incumbent. He characterizes it as a range war between dueling candidates.

"In this case, because the person that’s running doesn’t have a record in the Senate, it kind of opens up debate," Lawrence says. "So there’s going to be a lot of debate about how we look at national issues and how we feel about where government is going, so that’s going to lead to a free flow of exchange on that."

Leaders for both the Democrats and Republicans say their candidates are prepared to fight hard and win the open Senate seat.

As that campaign revs up, Senator Tim Johnson’s service winds down. His former political foe and now friend Senator Larry Pressler says the Senator has new opportunities and capacities to help South Dakotans.

"You might think of his continued service to the state, and this is not an obituary, but former Senators do a lot of things," Pressler says. "This is not the end for things for he in South Dakota. He’ll be a former member of Congress, and he can continue to do a lot of good."

"I’ve run for election 36 years in a row, and it’s now time to give that up," Johnson says. "But it will be strange, but I’m certain that I can get over it."

U.S. Senator Tim Johnson has nearly two more years before he officially departs Capitol Hill. He says he still has work to do and will focus on banking, water, veterans issues and health care before leaving office.