Republicans, Democrats Both See Opportunity in Johnson Retirement

Republicans have to pick up South Dakota, West Virginia at minimum to take back Senate.


Sen. Tim Johnson officially announced that he will not seek reelection.

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Republicans are looking at the electoral map and getting pretty confident that the road back to the Senate majority is becoming easier with each Democratic retirement. Democrats warn, however, that if 2012 was any indication, a red-shaded state on the electoral map doesn't guarantee a GOP pickup.

Tuesday Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., made the official announcement back in South Dakota that he would not seek reelection in 2014. Since he suffered a brain hemorrhage in 2006, Johnson's mobility has been restricted, but he's gained a reputation as a determined and savvy politician launching a successful reelection bid in 2008 and reforming the country's financial system as the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee.

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Johnson will leave his seat behind in a state where Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney whooped President Barack Obama by nearly 20 points in November, a place where a Republican-controlled state legislature and GOP governor run Pierre and the state's other Sen. John Thune is so popular that Democrats did not even field a candidate to run against him in 2010.

"When you get into the nuts and bolts of South Dakota politics, it becomes a real uphill climb for Democrats," says Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "It makes an already complex and difficult map for Democrats more complex."

And Johnson's exit could create a race where Democrats are embroiled in a nasty primary between two powerful Democratic families. Johnson's son Brendan, a U.S. attorney, is expected to throw his hat in the ring, as is former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin , the granddaughter of a popular governor.

On the other hand, Johnson's retirement could actually improve Democratic chances in the state.

A Public Policy Polling survey released last week showed Johnson's popularity was waning with 45 percent of South Dakotans disapproving of the job he was doing and only 44 percent approving of his performance in Congress. Furthermore, Sandlin, who lost her seat in the 2010 GOP wave, looks to be more competitive in polls when put up against the two possible GOP candidates.

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"South Dakota was already going to be one of our toughest holds. This was never going to be a cakewalk for us, but there is certainly a path to victory" says a national Democratic strategist.

Strategists also point out that a potential and fierce primary between Republican candidates former Gov. Mike Rounds and Rep. Kristi Noem could push both candidates too far to the right to be competitive in a state-wide election.

In 2012, a slew of bitter primary showdowns in Indiana and Missouri are credited with GOP defeats in the general elections. The same thing happened in Delaware in 2010.

"In recent history primaries have not hurt us like they have hurt the Republicans," the national Democratic strategist says.

With five Democratic retirements, South Dakota is just one of the many pickup opportunities Republicans see for themselves in 2014. Democrats have also announced they are retiring in West Virginia, Michigan, Iowa and New Jersey.

In West Virginia, the retirement of Sen. Jay Rockefeller presents another plum opportunity for Republicans. The GOP hopes to capitalize on Democratic opposition to coal production.

But in order to take back the Senate in 2014, strategists say Republicans have to win GOP strongholds like South Dakota and West Virginia at a minimum.

"Republicans need to put these away first and if they do, they may be able to win the Senate," says Kyle Kondik, a congressional expert at the University of Virginia. "If they don't, it says really bad things about the national folks' ability to run these races and the Republican brand."

Republicans would need to take back six seats to win back the Senate.

While Republicans could go after races in Michigan and Iowa where Democratic senators have announced retirements, they are more likely to focus on battlegrounds where Romney beat Obama by a wide margin places like Montana, Alaska, North Carolina, Louisiana and Arkansas.