Bookended by a pair of standing ovations, Sen. Tim Johnson, South Dakota Democrat, announced Tuesday that it is time to “close a circle” of service than began more than 30 years ago and leave the upper chamber in Washington when his term expires in 2014.
Mr. Johnson, 66, told an audience at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion that he will leave public office and spend more time with his wife and grandchildren, acknowledging that a life-threatening brain injury left him in poorer health even though he “feels great” and — in one of a several doses of humor — asserted he could have won his seat again.
“I’ve never been beaten,” he said.
His retirement hurts the Democrats’ hopes of holding their majority for the last two years of President Obama’s second term, given that Republicans tout several strong candidates in a state that favored Mitt Romney by 20 percentage points in November.
Republicans need to win a net of six seats to win back the Senate in 2014, and the South Dakota seat appears to be one of several that are within their grasp. Democratic Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia has announced his retirement, tossing up another seat in a state that overwhelmingly rejected Mr. Obama in November.
Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa, Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey and Carl Levin of Michigan — all Democrats — also are retiring, and former Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts stepped down from his seat after being confirmed as secretary of state. Each of their home states favored Mr. Obama in November, but their Senate seats might not be safe in an off-year election without the name-recognition and other advantages of incumbency.
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. Mr. Romney won both states comfortably in 2012.
Mr. Johnson served seven years in the South Dakota Legislature before his election to the U.S. House in 1987, serving 10 years before his switch to the Senate in 1997. He is chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.
“I want my legacy to be that I worked hard to bring the party together and the factions in South Dakota together,” he said.
He struck moderate positions in a traditionally conservative state instead of adopting the political doctrine of the left or right wings, noting Tuesday that he couldn’t “win” those extremes, anyway.
“I’m proud of my record, and I’m proud of the moderation I brought South Dakota,” he said.
Mr. Johnson’s exit is somewhat expected. In 2006, he nearly died from a brain hemorrhage, and returned to the Senate the following year — though his speech has never fully recovered.
Former Gov. Mike Rounds, a Republican, is already running for Mr. Johnson’s seat and Rep. Kristi L. 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 2010.
Mr. Johnson said there are “several good candidates” in the mix, but “you’ll have to ask Brendan” about his interest in winning the seat.