Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota plans to announce on Tuesday that he will not seek re-election in 2014, according to news reports — opening up a prime opportunity for Republicans to pick up a seat in a red state and cut into the Democratic majority in the Senate.
Mr. Johnson would be the fifth Senate Democrat to announce he is stepping down, a decision that puts a major dent in his party’s chances of holding onto the upper chamber, which they have controlled since 2007.
Mr. Johnson’s office refused to confirm news reports that the 66-year-old third-term senator had decided to call it quits, saying only that he will announce his decision during a news conference at the University of South Dakota, his alma mater, on Tuesday at 3 p.m.
“He is making an announcement tomorrow and has not said either way,” said Perry Plumart, the senator’s spokesman.
Republicans need to win a net of six seats to win back the chamber and the South Dakota seat appears to be prime for the picking after GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won the state by nearly a 20 percentage point margin over President Obama in the November election.
“There are now two open, Democrat-held Senate seats in states where President Obama won less than 40 percent of the vote in 2012: South Dakota and West Virginia,” said Kyle Kondik, of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Winning these two seats is a necessary but not sufficient condition for Republicans to take control of the Senate. On paper they should be the two easiest pickups for Republicans because while there are some other red state Democratic seats, the incumbents in those places — Mark Begich in Alaska, Max Baucus in Montana, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana and Mark Pryor in Arkansas — are apparently running for re-election.”
But Mr. Kondik cautioned that races that look tough on paper don’t always play to form: Democrats successfully defended Senate seat races in Montana and North Dakota last year, and “Republicans are perfectly capable of kicking away favorable opportunities.”
Former South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds, a Republican, is already running for the seat and Rep. Kristi Noem is among the other Republicans flirting with a bid. Meanwhile, Mr. Johnson’s son, Brendan Johnson, a U.S. attorney, is said to be considering a run, as is former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, who lost her seat to Mrs. Noem in the 2010 election.
Mr. Johnson served seven years in the South Dakota Legislature and made the jump to the U.S. House in 1987, where he served 10 years before being elected to the Senate in 1997. He is chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.
Mr. Johnson’s exit, though, is somewhat expected. In 2006, Mr. Johnson nearly died from a brain hemorrhage, and returned to the Senate the following year — though his speech has never fully recovered.
Democratic Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Carl Levin of Michigan and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia have already announced their retirements. Former Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts stepped down from his seat after being confirmed as secretary of state.
On the Republican side of the aisle, Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Mike Johanns of Nebraska have announced they will leave at the end of their current term.