By THOMAS BEAUMONT and DAVID ESPO
SIOUX FALLS, S.D.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota plans to retire at the end of his term, Democratic officials said Monday _ a departure that gives Republicans a prime opportunity to pick up a seat as they attempt to win back control of the chamber in 2014.
Johnson, the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, suffered a brain hemorrhage in 2006 and later returned to the Senate and won re-election in 2008 while sometimes using a motorized scooter.
The officials who described Johnson’s plans spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to pre-empt a formal announcement expected Tuesday in South Dakota.
Johnson, 66, is the fifth Democrat to decide to step aside at the end of the term in 2014, joining Carl Levin of Michigan, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey. Two Republicans also have said they plan to retire, and the GOP must gain six seats to win a majority.
Of the five states, South Dakota is seen as the most favorable to Republicans, who control the state’s Legislature, governorship and other federal offices. Johnson was seen as competitive, despite the state’s GOP tilt, in part because of his reserved manner and independent streak, as well as his committee chairmanship, which gives Johnson Senate clout as well as a robust fundraising base.
Still, Democrats rejected the notion that Johnson’s retirement opens the door for a GOP senator. In last November’s election, some Republican Senate candidates who appeared to be the heavy favorites ended up losing to Democratic rivals _ including Rick Berg, who lost to Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) in neighboring North Dakota.
South Dakota Democratic Chairman Ben Nesselhuf noted Democrats’ successes over the past 30 years, including former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle.
Republican Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD), a popular former two-term governor, has announced his candidacy for the seat, and has been campaigning since last year. Rounds declined to comment on Johnson’s retirement.
Attempts by The Associated Press to reach Johnson through his top Senate staff were unsuccessful. Johnson aides would not confirm the retirement but said the senator would hold a news conference on his political future at University of South Dakota in Vermillion Tuesday afternoon.
Aware that Johnson might decide to retire, Democrats in South Dakota and nationally have discussed possible successors on the ticket, including Johnson’s son Brendan, South Dakota’s U.S. attorney. The younger Johnson Monday said in an interview that he was unaware of his father’s decision and declined to discuss whether he would seek the office.
Former U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a contemporary of Brendan Johnson and another heir to a South Dakota Democratic legacy, also is looking at running. A granddaughter of former South Dakota Gov. Ralph Herseth, Herseth Sandlin served six years in the U.S. House before being defeated for re-election in 2010.
Action within Johnson’s party is expected quickly. An open Senate seat is rare in South Dakota, and Republicans have gained an upper hand in the state, controlling the governorship, the Legislature, its other Senate seat and its lone U.S. House seat.
Brendan Johnson, appointed U.S. attorney in 2009, has never held elected office and faced questions about his father’s involvement in the confirmation process. Assets for the younger Johnson include his father’s advisers and donor base.
Herseth Sandlin also has an in-tact network and following in South Dakota, but she could face some problems in a potential primary with Johnson. She opposed to the 2010 Affordable Care Act, a position that is out of step with a majority of party loyalists.
Republican Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD), a popular former two-term governor, has announced his candidacy for the seat, and has been campaigning since last year.
Espo reported from Washington.