2014: The intrigue, the feud and the damage done

Brendan Johnson in Rapid City, June 2011

U.S. Attorney for South Dakota Brendan Johnson. Is he really not running for Senate?

As Tom Daschle and Harry Reid take up arms against each other over South Dakota’s US Senate seat, let’s all take a breath and remember two things:

  1. Brendan Johnson has not yet said that Brendan Johnson is not running for the U.S. Senate in 2014. (Make that a double – neither has Tim Johnson.) Some surrogates have said he isn’t running, and those surrogates do have some credibility – namely quasi-declared candidate Rick Weiland and Draft Brendan organizer/co-conspirator Ryan Casey. Still and all, no word from the man himself.
  2. While Rick Weiland has said he is running, he has yet to formally organize and announce a campaign. Which leaves the skeptics among us – me included – to withhold judgment on a would-be Weiland candidacy until the car has fully taken the track. I’ve been told this vehicle is an infant, so it’ll be 0 to 100 in record time if it comes true.

Of Weiland, Senate majority leader Reid tells Politico: “He’s not my choice.” Not words one can easily take back.

After reading the Politico story linked above, one must also wonder whether Weiland’s unexpected entrance into the 2014 mix might have more to do with Tom Daschle wanting to show Harry Reid that he can set the South Dakota table with more flair and impact than can any DC politi-hack. But, knowing what I know about Daschle, I take him at his word when he tells Politico:

“They have to make their decisions, and I have to make mine,” Daschle said. “I don’t take it personally, and they shouldn’t, either.”

A big reason for Daschle’s political success was his ability, perhaps an innate South Dakota-ness, to not let his ego call the shots. A methodical accommodation of others’ interests and matter-of-fact dismantling of temper-tantrums have been Daschle’s hallmark. Not that he does not have his own temper, but he is disciplined in its control.

Which makes him going all-in with Weiland all the more curious. Did he ever support SHS or Brendan for the nomination? Just what the what is going on?

So where does the Tom v. Harry battle royal leave South Dakota for 2014?

  • Stephanie Herseth Sandlin says she’s out. I don’t look for that to change, but all things are possible. Politico makes it sound as though Reid & Co. have not given up. (So you’re saying I have a chance!) (For all of Daschle’s skill, I don’t buy the Politico take that his endorsement of Weiland kept her out. I think she would have enjoyed the challenge.)
  • Most folks believe Brendan is out. I have not yet joined their ranks. If he is out, what changed in such a hurry? How do Tim and Barbara Johnson feel about how this is shaking out? What does this bizzaro turn of events do to a future Brendan candidacy?
  • Will Rick Weiland truly be the Dems’ standard-bearer in 2014? If so, he had better be already drafting those position papers, lining up staff and raising money. It’s a long, bumpy road to the US Senate, and Rick Weiland apparently won’t find the Welcome Wagon waiting for him if he completes the journey.
  • If you’re a rank-and-file (yet passionate) Democrat in South Dakota, you probably didn’t think things could get much worse. Remember, Stephanie might run for governor down the road. Tom Daschle and Harry Reid don’t give a hoot about that job.


Smart move, Stephanie

Stephanie Herseth Sandlin

If you’re a reader of The Daily Republic, you may know I wrote a column recently in which I advised Stephanie Herseth Sandlin to either forgo next year’s Senate race in order to fulfill her expressed desire to spend more time with her family, or to quit talking about that desire so much if she had already decided to run.

Looks like I timed my column well. News broke this morning that she’s not running, after she posted an announcement on her Facebook page.

I’m under no illusions that my column had any impact whatsoever on her decision, but I do think, partly for the reasons I outlined in the column, that she made a smart move.

You can’t go all over the state telling everybody how important your family time is — as Herseth Sandlin had been doing lately — and then jump into the first big-time political race that comes along. It would look hypocritical.

The next time an opportunity arises, Herseth Sandlin’s young son will probably be in grade school, and she’ll be more able to make the sacrifice of time it takes to run for and win a statewide elected office.

Furthermore, I think the political winds are against her right now. When the regular voter thinks of Herseth Sandlin, I think there’s still a feeling of, “didn’t we just vote her out a couple of years ago?” It’s too soon for a full-scale comeback. Besides, I don’t see her beating Mike Rounds in a Senate race or Kristi Noem in a House race, and another defeat right now could be the end of Herseth Sandlin’s political career.

There will be more opportunities for Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. Nobody is emerging so far from the Democratic Party in South Dakota to challenge her as (in the absence of Tim Johnson) the party’s biggest star. She will continue to be the first name on Democratic lists for every statewide office that opens up. Of course, Brendan Johnson is out there on the horizon, but it’s looking more like he, too, might pass on the 2014 cycle. And we all know there’s plenty of room on the perilously thin South Dakota Democratic bench for two.

With a few more years living and working in South Dakota under her belt, Herseth Sandlin will be an even better candidate. One of the knocks on her was always that she left the state as a young woman for college and law school and appeared to rarely come back. By the next time she runs for something, with all the time she’ll have spent living, working and raising her child in South Dakota, that criticism will have been obliterated. I can honestly say I’d be more inclined to vote for her knowing that she’s shared my experience of being a working parent in South Dakota. And she’ll be better able to relate to voters, which is a scary prospect for Republicans, given she’s already shown she can win statewide elections in a Republican-dominated state.

So today I say congratulations to Stephanie Herseth Sandlin for making a good decision for sound reasons. Enjoy your family and your life for a while. I have a feeling the Democrats will still need you a few years down the road, and you’ll be able come back to politics when you’re truly ready.

Checking out the R and D rosters

Let’s say it’s a ballgame. The first pitch has yet to be thrown in the 2014 game, but how about setting the lineups?

The Republican team is easy to write down. The Democrats? Not so much, and the two biggest names both want to bat third and play center field.

Let’s run down the lineups.


R: Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who it turns out is not serving the third term of the Rounds administration, and loves to joke about running out of paper. He’s a caution.

D: Stephanie Herseth Sandlin? Bernie Hunhoff, who tried for it in 1998, and now says he doesn’t have the dough, and is not interested? Wild, wild guess sure to be wrong, but how interesting would it be — Tom Daschle. Even wilder? Sioux Falls native, TV star and party guy Pat O’Brien.

Lt. Governor:

R: LG Matt “The Nurse/Lawyer” Michels, unless some up-and-comer shoves him aside.

D: Um, well, let’s say Nancy Turbak Berry, or Jeff Barth. Would you believe Matt “Corn Dog” Varilek? Hell, in 2010 the Dems ran a Republican for this office.


R: Former Gov./Insurance Pitcher Mike Rounds. Maybe Rep. Kristi Noem, who declines to decline every chance she gets and had time to complete her long-lost college education during her first term in office.

D: Here they have a name or two, in either SHS, Zach’s mom and a recovering lobbyist who is pondering a comeback, or U.S. Attorney/Son in Waiting Brendan Johnson.


R: Noem, or maybe Dusty “PUC? Just kidding.” Johnson or some other eager young GOPer if she tries for the Senate.

D: Whoever loses the coin toss between SHS and Brendan? Bernie? Another try by Varilek?

Constitutional offices:

R: They hold all the offices, so it’s likely the same starters as 2010. Secretary of State Jason Gant may well face a challenge by another Republican, who can assuredly count on Stan Adelstein for a campaign donation or two.

D: If they nominate Ron Volesky for attorney general again we’ll ask for a Black Sox investigation.

Stephanie’s big fan: Brendan Johnson

Brendan Johnson isn’t running for anything.

Not the Senate. Or the House. Or governor, attorney general or anything else. Not yet, anyway.

After talking with him Wednesday, I am clear on that. He remains consistent that as South Dakota’s U.S. attorney, he enjoys his work, and is not ready to make an announcement that he is entering the political field his father is leaving.

Will he jump into a race? Maybe, maybe not. A draft Brendan committee has been formed, and he is aware of that.

But one thing Brendan wanted to make clear: All the political palavering that he and his father are in a feud with Stephanie Herseth Sandlin is false.

“That is not true at all. I like and admire Stephanie,” he said. “I have all the respect in the world for her.”

Herseth Sandlin has expressed admiration for Tim Johnson repeatedly, and did so again on Tuesday, when South Dakota’s senior senator made it official: He won’t run in 2014.

“Today is Senator Johnson’s day, a day to reflect on his extraordinary service to the state of South Dakota. And while I’ve appreciated the encouragement I’ve received, I haven’t focused on future political opportunities,” she said. “Rather, like countless others, today I’m focused on Tim.”

Now, this will surely disappoint the GOP and its online troops, who are eager to stir up a battle between the two. And it still may happen if they set their sights on the same race, and wind up in a Democratic primary.

SD’s Democrats are trying to create the same fracas between former Gov. Mike Rounds and Rep. Kristi Noem. They are hoping those two end up in a squabble and a primary.

Rounds and Noem have also said they like and admire each other. That doesn’t mean they won’t end up battling for the Senate nomination in 14 months.

Right now, Rounds said he’s running for the Senate seat Tim Johnson is vacating. Noem is pondering her options, Herseth Sandlin hasn’t indicated what, if anything, she will run for in 2014. And Brendan Johnson is prohibited from talking politics publicly.

Things could change soon. Names, and elbows could be thrown. But right now, Brendan Johnson says don’t believe the hype.

The party officials, the partisan bloggers, the letter-writers and party activists, are acting like kids in the school yard: They are egging the potential opponents on. Will it work?

It’s also well worth noting that in March 2009, no one was discussing state Rep. Kristi Noem of rural Castlewood as South Dakota’s next member of Congress. A surprise candidate could emerge in either or both parties.