Sen. Tim Johnson’s announcement that he would not seek re-election sparked speculation about his successor, with some Democrats dreading the name of perhaps the leading prospect: Brendan Johnson, U.S. attorney for South Dakota and son of the retiring senator.
With more than $1.2 million raised for his campaign kitty before he announced his retirement, the elder Johnson could easily spend it independently to promote his second son as his political heir.
After representing South Dakota in Congress since 1987, Tim Johnson, 66, has a residue of affection among grass-roots Democrats as well as a political chit or two to call in on Brendan’s behalf.
So why is there fear among South Dakota Democrats about nominating Brendan Johnson? It is simply that the idea of a son directly following his father in a Senate seat is almost unheard of in modern American politics.
A Brendan Johnson nomination would almost surely result in a hard-hitting campaign by the likely Republican nominee, former two-term Gov. Mike Rounds, slamming the making of a dynasty.
That may explain why there is a growing effort to draft former three-term Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin as the Democratic Senate nominee, three years after she was defeated for re-election.
“Multiple sources confirmed that Herseth Sandlin had been in touch with a representative from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, who urged her to run,” The Hill newspaper reported.
There is nothing unique about sons of senators winning Senate seats themselves. In 1980, 10 years after Democratic Sen. Thomas Dodd of Connecticut was defeated for re-election, son Chris was elected to the Senate from the Nutmeg State — after serving three terms in the House.
In 1992, Republican Robert Bennett won the Utah Senate seat held by his father Wallace Bennett from 1951-74.
There are situations in which sons of senators were appointed to succeed their fathers in the Senate. When Democratic Sen. Harry Byrd of Virginia resigned his seat in 1965, son Harry Jr. was appointed to replace him — and barely won the special primary for the seat a year later.
Republican Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island died in 1999 and son Lincoln was named to his seat. He won a full term in 2000, was beaten in 2006 and is currently the state’s governor.
To find a situation in which a son tried to directly follow his father in the Senate through election, one has to go back to 1976.
Veteran Democratic Sen. Stuart Symington of Missouri stepped down and his son, four-term Rep. James Symington, entered the Democratic primary to succeed him. Also in the race were Rep. Jerry Litton and former Gov. Warren Hearnes.
“Jimmy Symington was and is a terrific gentleman,” Missouri Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder told me, “but the voters collectively shrugged about the idea of promoting him to the Senate.”
The younger Symington came in third behind Litton and Hearnes. When Litton was killed in a plane crash along with his family after winning the Democratic nomination, the Democratic state committee had to choose a replacement on the ballot. Symington did not present himself as a candidate.
Brendan Johnson could well be nominated to succeed his father. In U.S. politics, history is made all the time, a fact most recently symbolized by an election in which the first black president faced the first Mormon ever nominated by a major party for president.
But in a state that Barack Obama lost by 20 percentage points in 2012, South Dakota Democrats would be taking a gamble if they try to make history by nominating the son of their retiring senator.
John Gizzi is the former political editor for Human Events, working for the conservative weekly from 1979 to 2013. Gizzi is a recipient of the William A. Rusher Award for Journalistic Excellence, was named Journalist of the Year by the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2002, and has appeared on hundreds of radio and TV talk shows.
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