If former Gov. Mike Rounds indeed is a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2014, you have to wonder whether Democratic U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson will seek re-election. And, if Johnson does, you have to further wonder whether the Democrats will turn the campaign into a referendum on how Rounds managed state government during his eight years in office. The 10 percent budget cuts that his successor, Gov. Dennis Daugaard, felt necessary to impose; the difficulties now surfacing within the South Dakota Retirement System because of policies encouraged during the 2000s; the deadlock over and shifting fate of the Homestake underground laboratory project; the second state-government jet that was purchased under the Rounds administration; the mini-controversy over Valhalla in Custer State Park; even the size and uses of the new governor’s mansion are just some of the topics that will be considered by Democrats.
Johnson, still physically limited by his near-death brain-bleeding emergency in 2006, is the Democrats’ only remaining statewide office-holder in South Dakota. He will be on the cusp of turning age 68 during the 2014 campaign, while Rounds will turn 60 a few weeks before that election day. Neither man will be the young, promising, telegenic politician that South Dakota voters have favored for Congress in recent decades, such as John Thune, Kristi Noem, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, Tom Daschle and Larry Pressler. Johnson instead will be battling the three-term limit that South Dakota voters have unofficially imposed on their U.S. senators. I will need to do some digging to see how often South Dakota elected a freshman senator or representative who was 60 or older. Other than Bill Janklow, who was 63 when he won in 2002, no one in the past 60 years comes to mind who was 60 or older when first elected to Congress.
Johnson was last on the ballot in 2008, when he defeated Republican challenger Joel Dykstra with 62.5 percent of the vote. Rounds was last on the ballot in 2006, when he defeated Democratic challenger Jack Billion and two other candidates with 61.7 percent of the vote. Subtract the approximately 38 percent of voters who didn’t vote for either Johnson or Rounds, and you have about 24 percent who voted for both Johnson and Rounds. In 2002, both men were on the November ballots. Johnson struggled past Republican John Thune for re-election, winning by just 476 votes in a three-way race. Rounds blew past Democrat Jim Abbott in a four-way contest, winning with 57.8 percent. Neither party, meanwhile, has yet seen a strong alternative surface to either Rounds or Johnson for its nomination.
For Johnson, the road to election in the U.S. House of Representatives was much easier. He never finished with less than 59 percent of the vote in capturing the House seat in 1986, 1988, 1990, 1992 and 1994. He knocked Republican U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler off in 1996 with a well-organized campaign to get out the vote, winning with 51 percent. Thune in 2002 attempted to replicate that GOTV effort and came within an eyelash of taking out Johnson. Johnson endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary in South Dakota, and if Obama wins re-election this fall, Republicans likely will work to tie Johnson to Obama in the 2014 campaign. Given Johnson’s thin margins against Pressler and Thune, linking Johnson and Obama in South Dakota might well be enough in itself for Rounds to win in 2014 regardless of his record as governor. Obama received 44.7 percent of the vote in South Dakota for president against Republican John McCain in 2008. Given Rounds’ past margins of victory, a 55-45 line in 2014 with Rounds as the favorite might be a good over-under starting point for oddsmakers.