NOTE: The post below was written in the pre-dawn hours Tuesday, prior to the official announcement that he won’t seek another term as senator in 2014.
This afternoon South Dakota and the world will hear the answers to whether Democratic U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson is seeking re-election or retiring in 2014 and whether he will be returning to South Dakota to live if he does retire.
It is indeed a rare event for a South Dakota elected official to step aside from statewide office. In that respect Tim Johnson would stand alone. If he chooses to live in South Dakota, that would be relatively rare too. What we have seen instead for decades are members of Congress who run until they lose. And then many haven’t chosen to live in South Dakota afterward.
The Johnson announcement this afternoon will come in Vermillion where he grew up and on the University of South Dakota where he attended. As Jon Ellis of the Argus Leader deftly noted yesterday, a re-election announcement likely would have come in Sioux Falls. It’s worth noting too there isn’t a fly-around scheduled for today and tomorrow. Candidates seeking election typically make those fly-arounds to reach the cities where there are news organizations capable of giving them broad coverage with voters.
The question ahead is what role does Tim Johnson play next for the South Dakota Democratic Party. He is their last statewide office-holder. There isn’t a potential candidate for the Senate seat other than Tim Johnson who is at the same level of recent statewide popularity as Republican former Gov. Mike Rounds, who was the first to the 2014 Senate race last year.
As that rarest of creatures in South Dakota politics — the member of Congress who doesn’t end his career in defeat or resignation — Tim Johnson has an opportunity to do something big for his political party. Unlike Scott Heidepriem, who hasn’t been seen doing much for the Democrats since his 2010 defeat for governor, Tim Johnson can plant a flag in the Vermillion/USD community and make it the new center for Democratic politics in South Dakota. That might seem an unlikely place, until you look at the steady pro-Democratic tendencies of Clay County and at the people who are already there all or much of the time.
They include Ben Nesselhuf, the former legislator who is the current chairman and executive director for the South Dakota Democratic Party. There is Jim Abbott, the president of the University of South Dakota, who was the Democrats’ 2002 candidate for governor and previously sought the U.S. House nomination. There is Ted Muenster, whose work and love for USD is reflected by his family’s name on the student center, and who made the 1990 run as the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in 1990 against Pressler, when Johnson didn’t feel sufficiently confident yet after winning election to the U.S. House in 1986 and 1988. Just down the road in Yankton is the state House Democratic leader Bernie Hunhoff, who was the Democrats’ candidate for governor in 1998. And of course just up Interstate 29 is Sioux Falls.
That the Democratic Party in South Dakota needs a revival is beyond dispute. The voter-registration numbers show it. New voters who list their choices as Republican or independent far outnumber those who pick Democrat. The numbers in the Legislature show it. The numbers in statewide office show it. What better teacher and leader than Tim Johnson, age 66. If he retires, he can stand as the last of his kind at this time, and he can be an inspiration and a mentor to those who believe in the Democratic Party. If he runs and loses, he is one of the defeated. Knowing when to retreat and regather forces for another day is sometimes the greatest wisdom a general can have.