By CHET BROKAW and THOMAS BEAUMONT, Associated Press
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — The anticipated retirement announcement from South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson gives Republicans one of their best chances of picking up a seat in their quest to regain control, as the veteran moderate Democrat steps aside.
Johnson, the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, is expected to say Tuesday afternoon that he will not seek a fourth term in the Senate next year.
The fifth Senate Democrat to call it quits, Johnson was facing a potentially difficult challenge from popular Republican Gov. Mike Rounds and still coping with the constraints of a 2006 brain hemorrhage that left his speech impaired and limited his mobility. The absence of the well-funded former congressman who has never lost an election in this GOP-trending state pushed the race to the top of the priority list, Republican strategists said.
"I believe South Dakota moves into the top slot as the most likely Republican pickup," said Greg Strimple, a Republican pollster and past consultant to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Johnson was scheduled to speak Tuesday at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion.
For weeks, Johnson's longtime aides and allies have suggested the 66-year-old would step down in 2014, despite his return to the Senate after the life-threatening hemorrhage. His recovery has been significant, though his speech remains impaired and he sometimes uses a motorized scooter.
Johnson's re-election in 2008 after the brain injury sealed his reputation for resilience. But long before, he had established a profile as a loyal Democrat but with an independent streak that made him a formidable candidate. He won re-election to the Senate against the popular Republican U.S. Rep. John Thune, now South Dakota's senior senator, after voting against the resolution to authorize the use of military force in Iraq and despite campaigning for Thune by Republican President George W. Bush.
Johnson has sided with Democrats on key issues such as the 2010 Affordable Care Act. He also has been an environmental advocate. But he has supported the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which is mapped to cross South Dakota and fiercely opposed by environmentalists.
He also has $1.2 million in his re-election campaign account, a healthy nest egg for a state where television advertising is relatively inexpensive. He retains a robust fundraising network, thanks to his deep-pocketed committee connections.
Despite those advantages, Johnson joins Democratic Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey as seasoned and influential Democrats departing the chamber, where Republicans need to gain six seats to take control. Among those states, West Virginia was carried by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney last year.
Two Republican senators have announced their retirements, both in Republican-performing states Georgia and Nebraska.
South Dakota, a reliably independent state just a decade ago, has trended sharply Republican in the past decade. Where Democrats once boasted two influential Democratic senators, Republicans now control the Legislature, governorship, the lone U.S. House seat and the other Senate seat.
But Democrats dismissed 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 Heidi Heitkamp in neighboring North Dakota.
"I reject the idea that somehow the Republicans have a lock on this state," South Dakota Democratic Party Chairman Ben Nesselhuf said. "By no means is this an impossible task, or even improbable."
Devotees say Johnson's personality — reserved and contemplative — has been the key to the respect and influence he has amassed.
Bernie Hunhoff, minority leader in the South Dakota House, described Johnson as a pioneering advocate for women's and children's issues during his early days in the state Legislature. Johnson set the standard for Democrats, by staying true to progressive principles, while also reaching out across the electorate in a politically diverse state, said Hunhoff.