Column: Senate race heating up

Farm Forum

To no one’s surprise, Tim Johnson will retire from the Senate at the end of this term. It is worth saying that Sen. Johnson is a fine man. We have every reason to be proud of the way he represented our state in the upper house of Congress.

His departure opens up a piece of electoral real estate that might determine who controls the Senate in 2015. A year and a half out, it is a good time to take the measure of both parties.

Gov. Mike Rounds is the only announced Republican candidate for that Senate seat. He is unlikely to face serious opposition from within his own party. Rounds’ victory in the 2002 Republican gubernatorial primary was the great surprise of that year. The two leading contenders took each other in a bitter fight, leaving Rounds to take the nomination. He won office with 57 percent of the vote and won again in 2006 with more than 60 percent of the vote. With two statewide victories under his belt and his popularity intact, he looks to be a very formidable candidate.

Kristi Noem is the only Republican who might offer a serious challenge to Rounds, but it seems very unlikely that she would choose to do so or find support within the party if she did. However, if Rounds had not thrown his hat into the ring, she would have been well placed to compete for the Senate seat. Like Rounds, she has twice won a statewide election. South Dakota Republicans have a strong bench.

The Democrats do not. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin would have been the best candidate to challenge Rounds in the general election. She won statewide four times, including the special election in 2004 that first put her in office. However, she declined to run, as did Sen. Johnson’s son, Brendan. The leading contender for the Democratic nomination is Rick Weiland, who enters the contest with the backing of Tom Daschle.

I met Weiland in 1994 when he appeared on a televised panel with his opponent for the House seat, John Thune. Weiland was charming, intelligent and articulate. He won six of our state’s 66 counties and 37 percent of the popular vote. In the 2002 Democratic primary for the at-large House seat, he lost nearly every county to Herseth Sandlin and carried only 32 percent of the Democratic voters.

Weiland and Herseth Sandlin represent two sides of the Democratic coin. In 2010, Weiland’s brother Kevin considered challenging Herseth Sandlin for the nomination, largely because she voted against ObamaCare. He did not do so, but that was a sign of a division in the party that helped elect Noem.

Weiland may better represent the core of the Democratic Party, here and nationally. If he is going to be competitive in 2014, he is going to have to win more than six counties.

Kenneth C. Blanchard Jr. is a professor of political science at Northern State University. Write to him at americannews@ The views presented are his and do not represent Northern State University.