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GOP Eyes S.D. Senate Seat, Tim Johnson To Retire


South Dakota is now among the states that will have an open U.S. Senate seat for the 2014 election. Senator Tim Johnson announced, yesterday, he will not seek a fourth term. As South Dakota Public Broadcasting's Cara Hetland reports, Johnson's retirement will have big implications for the next race, given it is a Democrat's seat in a very Republican state.

CARA HETLAND, BYLINE: Standing at a podium at the University of South Dakota with his wife Barbara at his side, Democrat Tim Johnson told a crowd of supporters, yesterday afternoon, that his career has come full circle.


REPRESENTATIVE TIM JOHNSON: I will be 68 years old at the end of this term, and it is time for me to say goodbye.

HETLAND: Tim Johnson has never lost an election. His first victory was in 1979, running for the state legislature. He then served 10 years in the U.S. House and three terms in the U.S. Senate.


JOHNSON: I've run for election 36 years in a row and it's now time to give it up. It will be strange, but I am certain I can get over it.

HETLAND: Of course, not every election was easy. In 2002 he beat John Thune by only 500 votes. For many years Johnson served along side former senior senator and majority leader Tom Daschle who appointed Johnson to the powerful appropriations committee. In 2006, Johnson suffered a brain hemorrhage that left his speech slurred and weakness in his arms and legs.

Johnson says he feels fine, but it's time to move back home. Johnson's popularity in this largely Republican state comes chiefly from being a moderate. Some Republican voters in Rapid City say they're proud to have crossed over and voted for the Democrat in every election.

TIM HEILAND: Senator Johnson's done a good job. He's been there for a long time. I voted him every time in the 25 years I've lived here. Every time when he came up, I voted for him. So, I mean, I believe in what he's trying to do.

VICTORIA GAWHEGA: He's really done a lot of great things, I think, and I know he's spent a lot of time working with the Native Americans and he was a big supporter of that and the work that we did at the health board. So that's really sad that he's stepping down.

MARGARET CHROBAK: Well, he must have done well for people. And I think once people start voting for people, they get used to doing that too.

HETLAND: Tim Heiland, Victoria Gawhega and Margaret Chrobak all say they will miss having Johnson represent them in the Senate. Mike Card teaches political science at the University of South Dakota. He says Johnson's retirement brings a different kind of race to South Dakota politics. He's not sure if we'll see a flood of candidates here, but widely expects a flood of money and negative ads as both parties battle for the open senate seat.

MIKE CARD: If I were a Republican candidate, I would try and pin the Democratic candidate, whoever that might be, and try to make this a national race. And that they are going to be stooges of an unpopular President Obama. If I were a Democratic candidate, I would try to make this a hyper local campaign - that this is only about South Dakota issues and only about representing people from South Dakota.

HETLAND: Former Republican Governor Mike Rounds is the only announced candidate so far for the 2014 Senate race. U.S. Attorney Brendon Johnson is considering entering the race for his father's seat, along with former Democratic congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. South Dakota is a state with only three votes in Congress, but is now likely to receive outsized national attention and money in the battle over the open Senate seat. For NPR News, I'm Cara Hetland in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.


MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.