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Native Sun News: Battle looms for Senate seat in South Dakota

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More on: brendan johnson, democrats, mike rounds, native sun news, republicans, senate, south dakota, stephanie herseth sandlin, tim johnson

The following story was written and reported by Brandon Ecoffey, Native Sun News Managing Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

With Tim Johnson retiring a battle for his seat looms large
By Brandon Ecoffey
Native Sun News Managing Editor

RAPID CITY—For the first time since 1978 South Dakota will have an open Senate seat up for grabs and with it comes a real possibility that the state will operate without a Democrat occupying either the position of US representative or Senator.

Sen. Tim Johnson will leave office after a 36 year run as a legislator at the end of the current term. Johnson won four elections in the state Legislature, five elections for the U.S. House of Representatives and three more for the U.S. Senate. During that time he became widely known as a centrist democrat with a willingness to promote both internal state tribal issues and a national pro Native American policy platform.

With the announcement last week that the long time statesman and tribal advocate would be retiring a fury of local and national political dialogue has erupted as to who may be the next Senator from South Dakota. The race is sure to garner national attention come election time as both parties prepare to wrestle for control of the Senate. The seat is viewed by Republican strategists as extremely winnable. Mitt Romney carried South Dakota by 18 points over President Obama in the last presidential election.

Despite the state’s right leaning tendencies there has historically been a balance maintained in SD with Democrats like former Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle, Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin, and the now retiring Tim Johnson in office. The counter balance between Democrats and Republicans has guaranteed that issues impacting the nine Indian reservations in South Dakota have at the very least been discussed, and at most have been driven through congress.

For example the recently passed Violence Against Women Act which received bipartisan support and national news coverage was opposed by South Dakota’s Sen. John Thune (R-SD) and Rep Kristi Noem (R-SD) because of the provisions that expanded the jurisdiction of tribal courts while Tim Johnson the loan Democrat in the state reportedly worked tirelessly behind the scenes to bring the two parties together in efforts to reconcile the house and senate versions of the bill. South Dakota’s tribes have consistently voted Democratic and the tribes and have historically been the leaders on the national policy issues that impact the rest of Indian Country.

Bryan Brewer, the widely popular and progressive president of the Oglala Sioux tribe, told Native Sun News that he is interested in seeing how the field takes shape.

“It is far too early to begin to speculate on who would be the best choice for Native people, especially when we do not know who is running,” said President Brewer. “The reality of the situation is that we will have to work with whoever is elected and we will expect them to remember that Native people are huge part of their constituency in South Dakota and that their votes while in office should reflect this,” he added.

So far there has been only one person to officially announce his candidacy. Late last year former South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds, a Republican, made his intentions to challenge for Sen. Johnson’s seat public. Shortly after making his announcement to run former Gov. Rounds told Native Sun News that one of his primary objectives would be to find ways to bring jobs to the nine reservations in South Dakota. Rounds while in office worked with retired owner of Native Sun News Tim Giago to have the year 2010 declared as a Year of Unity. The gesture was received quite well by Native Americans in the state.

Not everyone is sold on Gov. Rounds however, including those in his own party. The Senate Conservatives Fund a political action committee that was created by the former senator from South Carolina Jim Demint has already stated that they will not support Rounds because they feel he is not conservative enough.

There has been speculation that another Republican will throw her hat in to the race Rep Kristi Noem (R-SD). The freshman Representative is rumored to be considering challenging Rounds for the Republican nomination in South Dakota. Noem however burned many bridges in Indian Country when it was learned that she did not support the Violence Against Women Act, and that she was an outspoken critic of the tribal provisions that were included in the Senate version of the bill. The tribal provisions in the bill expanded the authority of tribal courts to prosecute non-Native domestic violence offenders. She has stated in the past though that she has defended tribes by opposing the efforts of the National Relations Labor Board to impede on tribal sovereignty and their efforts to make tribal businesses subject to NLRB regulations. She was quick to highlight her efforts during debates with Democratic challenger Matt Varilek who questioned her about the work she had done in Indian country.

Noem is expected to be the most formidable challenger to the widely popular Rounds if a Republican primary was to happen. Rounds told reporters that he was inclined to not run a single negative campaign add but came short of guaranteeing that he wouldn’t. Noem on the other hand has proven in the past that she is more than willing to go on the attack against any potential opponent. The best case scenario for Democrats would be for the two potential Republican opponents to drag each other in to a long and tough primary campaign.

For the state’s Democratic Party it will be a major challenge to hold the seat left vacant by the retiring of Sen. Johnson. Former Gov. Rounds is popular on both the left and right and the only two realistic potential democratic horses in the stable are former Rep Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin and current US attorney Brendan Johnson.

Herseth-Sandlin brings to the table a well-established relationship with Native Americans in the state. She lost her seat 2010 in an extremely close race with Noem by 1 point and took some lumps from the state’s conservatives for voting in favor of the stimulus package and a backlash from the state’s liberals for voting against the Affordable Care Act. Despite this she brings several years of experience both in office and as a lobbyist in Washington D.C. to the table. She is also a graduate of Georgetown School of Law and a proven politician who would be a formidable opponent to either a Democratic primary challenger or to an eventual Republican foe. She has not stated publicly her decision.

"I haven't focused on the future political opportunities," Herseth-Sandlin told the AP.

The dark horse in the race may be Sen. Tim Johnson’s son, Brendan. The current U.S. attorney for the District of South Dakota had been an outspoken supporter of two major pieces of legislation that hold the potential to drastically expand tribal sovereignty, and the judicial legitimacy and strength of tribal courts. In an interview last year Brendan Johnson told Native Sun News that he would like to see tribes have the capacity to prosecute more of their own. He would also state that mass prosecution was not the solution to the problems facing Indian country. He has not announced any intention to run but democratic insiders in the state have told Native Sun News that right now a run at the Senate seat is unlikely for Johnson.

The elder Johnson had accumulated approximately $1.5 million in his war chest for the upcoming campaign. The money he used could be funneled back in to the state for use by the Democrats but he also has the option to give it to a number of non-profit groups.

The research group Public Policy Polling has recently released figures showing that right now the odds on favorite to win the seat would be former Gov. Rounds. According to the data Herseth-Sandlin is favored over Noem, and Rounds is preferred over both.

(Contact Brandon Ecoffey at

Copyright permission by Native Sun News

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