Johnson retirement would match Mundt’s

It’s long been known as the Curse, or Kurse, of Karl. And no, Carl is not an option.

Karl Mundt is the only South Dakotan elected to the Senate four times, winning 6-year terms in 1948 (when he took office a few days early to gain a seniority edge), 1954, 1960 (when he defeated a promising young Democrat named George McGovern) and 1966.

But Mundt, a Republican, was felled by a severe stroke in 1969, and left almost completely disabled. He refused to resign, and his wife and aides kept his office going for four more years. Mundt was unable to run for a fifth term in 1972.

Will Tim Johnson’s health also end his political career? Johnson, a Democrat, suffered a severe brain bleed in December 2006, but after months away from the Capitol, he returned to work full-time in September 2007. He then breezed to a third term in 2008, and was soon elevated to the chairmanship of the Senate Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.

But Johnson is still severely impacted physically by the congenital malady that struck him down more than six years ago, and has to be helped from a car to a wheelchair to a chair. He is far weaker and more dependent on his staff than people realize.

Johnson does few public events. When he does return to South Dakota, he only appears before a small, hand-picked group of people in closed-door settings. Johnson, who maintains a lively sense of humor, seems sharp, but he also reads off prepared statements, and at times stumbles and pauses for several seconds as he searches for words.

Can this good, decent, sharp man take on a popular, vital, media-friendly Mike Rounds in 2014? It was one thing for TJ to ignore the little-known, underfunded Joel Dykstra in 2008. The public, and the media, won’t let him do that, and with a real contest this time, Johnson won’t be able to try that approach.

So it may be that like Mundt, who held the Senate seat Johnson now has, TJ’s political career is ended by his lack of health. Johnson has also battled prostate cancer, and broke his right shoulder last year. He is rather frail, so perhaps another Senate run isn’t even a good thing for him.

My best guess is he will head to the barn after winning 12 general election races without a loss, counting the Legislature (4 wins: 2 in the House, 2 in the Senate), U.S. House (5 terms) and Senate (3-0 record). If so, let’s hope Tim, who is 66, has a long, happy post-Senate life. Mundt died 18 months after he left office at the age of 74.

If Johnson does retire undefeated he will be like another successful South Dakota politician, the woefully under-appreciated Rep. Ben Reifel, who left Congress in 1971 after winning five times without a loss.

Reifel, a Republican, was an amazing man with a fascinating biography. He was known as a workhorse, not a showhorse. That is also a good description of Johnson.

Also, if Johnson ran and lost, would be like the other members of the three-term club in South Dakota. McGovern, Larry Pressler and Tom Daschle had to be carried out on their shields when they sought to match Karl.

Kurses, they likely said!

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