The 2014 U.S. Senate election

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.

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About Bob Mercer

Bob Mercer is a newspaper reporter in Pierre where I cover state government, issues and politics for the Aberdeen American News and four other separately owned newspapers: the Black Hills Pioneer, the Pierre Capital Journal, the Mitchell Daily Republic and the Watertown Public Opinion. I began covering the Legislature in 1985 and have lived in Pierre since December 1986. I grew up in Wisconsin, worked my way through college, took my first full-time newspapers jobs in Wyoming, and have lived in South Dakota since the summer of 1984 when I moved to Aberdeen to join the American News. I worked for the Rapid City Journal as its state government reporter in Pierre from late 1992 through late 1998. I spent four years as press secretary and a senior aide to Gov. Bill Janklow during his fourth and final term from late 1998 through 2002. I returned to journalism in January 2003 as a self-employed reporter, providing state government coverage to the Mitchell, Watertown, Spearfish, Pierre and, depending on the year, Aberdeen newspapers. In 2008, the Aberdeen American News offered to hire me as full-time member of the AAN staff, with my reports continuing to be available to the Mitchell, Watertown, Spearfish and Pierre papers. The new arrangement has been in effect since January 2009 as the five papers continue their remarkable dedication to their readers and the general public, as the only South Dakota news outlets with a full-time reporter covering state government in Pierre throughout the year. In addition to focusing on the Legislature during the annual winter session and its various activities during the interim periods between sessions, I spend many days throughout the year -- traveling as often necessary -- to cover state government boards and commissions which oversee the state universities, technical institutes, outdoors, water, environment, business, public schools, banking, agriculture, utilities, health care and various other areas of public interest. I purposely don't register to vote because of my profession; the last time I recall voting in a presidential election was the first time, 1976, when I had just turned 18. I think I voted for Jimmy Carter over Gerald Ford. Make of that what you want, just don't make much of it.

5 thoughts on “The 2014 U.S. Senate election

  1. Ambiguous

    Great post Mr. Mercer.

    The biggest thing is that Noem isn’t really much of an alternative to Rounds. She voted for the same budgets that DD had to fix.

    If a serious challenger was going to emerge from the Republican ranks it would need to be someone with extensive work on the budget. Meaning a legislator and a legislator with broad support who could either get other legislators to come out and publicly back him or keep some of the leaders neutral so they aren’t under cutting the message by backing Rounds.

    Rounds wasn’t all that fantastic as a Governor but he has high poll numbers. Most likely soft. I don’t think the performance Noem has given us puts her in the category of someone who could defeat Mike Rounds in a primary.

    We already no by basic common sense that Tim Johnson is done. I don’t think he could have defeated Rounds in 2008 let alone 2014 after going extremely liberal.

    I’ll stomach Rounds over Johnson but I want a real conservative problem solver to challenge him in a primary.

    (Stace, Gordon and Napoli need not apply)

    1. Ambiguous

      Here is how I think 2014 lays out as of now:

      Johnson will retire going out as someone who has never lost a race and with a son waiting in the wings to run for political office. Great legacy!

      Rounds will be in for sure. But then the question is who challenges Rounds? I think SHS sits this one out if Rounds is not challenged by Noem in a contentious primary. If Noem gets into the primary this race will get rough because Noem will be the underdog and need to bring Rounds down, That would be ideal for SHS considering Noem would either beat Rounds up or win and based on Noem’s job performance I don’t think she could defeat SHS.

      If Noem doesn’t get in the SDDP will likely struggle to find an alternative to Rounds that is a decent candidate.

      I doubt Brendan Johnson would want to start his career off by running against a popular former Governor who is more liked by the general voting public than the primary voters.

      Brendan Johnson will run for House in ’14 and defeat Noem.

      But I think there is a strong opening for an alternative to Rounds who is not Kristi Noem. I’d like to start seeing some names.

    2. SD GrassRoots GOP

      Well, if we “no by common sense that Tim Johnson is done”. Maybe we shouldn’t say no to some obvious conservative candidates that are a much better option of sending a major rino to DC.

  2. interested party

    Rounds’ rant in Dakota Dunes was clearly racially charged: even the timing of his announcement is puzzling. Even KW chose to cover Thune rather than jump on the Rounds failures while he was governor.

    That the SDGOP is so fractured this dealio does indeed look like an effort designed at unifying a deeply divided party.

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