Tim Johnson of South Dakota was the lone Democratic senator from a conservative state facing reelection in 2014 not to sign a bipartisan letter calling on President Obama to green-light the Keystone XL pipeline. It’s a signal that, combined with recent statements, he’s less attuned to his own reelection and may be considering retirement.
Johnson is one of seven Democratic senators from a state Mitt Romney won in 2012, a factor that makes him politically vulnerable. One of the group, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, has already announced his retirement after recently taking positions on energy to the left of his constituents.
Other Democrats in similar political circumstances as Johnson have begun taking steps to insulate themselves from attacks from the right. For instance, nine Democratic senators from Republican-leaning states signed the Keystone letter to Obama, including Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Max Baucus of Montana, who cowrote the letter.
Some of those senators, such as Hagan and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who also signed the letter but isn't up for election until 2018, hail from states beyond the proposed route the pipeline would take. South Dakota, meanwhile, is already home to sections of the pipeline and could gain economically from the project, according to a Cornell study.
Thus far, Johnson has sided with Obama on the pipeline issue, putting him at odds with many voters. Johnson is on record backing the State Department review process proposed by Obama. The State Department review is expected to end in March. If Johnson decides he won't run again in 2014, it would make it easier for him to side with the president against the pipeline.
For now, the race is beginning to take shape, with former GOP Gov. Mike Rounds declaring he'll run. The question is, will Johnson? His lingering effects from a brain hemorrhage suffered in 2006 could mean he’d want to return home after his term ends. His son, U.S Attorney Brendan Johnson, would be a possible replacement candidate if he retired. But no matter the nominee, Republicans sense an opportunity for a pickup in a conservative state.
"We need to see if I feel like I can still do a good job. I have been elected and reelected for 36 years without defeat and for me, that's a question of is that enough or should I go on?" Johnson said in Sioux Falls, S.D., earlier this month, according to the Rapid City Journal.