Although South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson has not said whether he intends to seek re-election 2014, some Democrats are discussing a way of keeping his seat in the family_and in Democratic hands— if he decides not to run.
The activists are promoting the idea of Johnson's son, Brendan, who is U.S. attorney, seeking the nomination if the senator decides to retire after his third term ends.
Lingering effects from a 2006 brain hemorrhage have intensified questions about the senator's plans. He chairs the Senate Banking Committee, but his speech and his physical stamina remain impaired.
Johnson, 66, has $1.2 million in his campaign account to use if he chooses to run. Still, he would face a tough race, with the state having shifted toward the Republican Party in recent years. Senate aides to Johnson declined to comment on Johnson's future.
Some Democrats believe Brendan Johnson would give the party a chance to hold the seat.
"Brendan is one who walks into the room and works it well," said Steve Dick, a Sioux Falls Democrat and veteran aide to former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle. "He's positioning himself. That's what people are talking about."
In a telephone interview, Brendan Johnson declined to comment, citing his federal post. Johnson, 37, has been U.S. attorney since 2009.
"One of the promises I made to myself when I took the position was I wasn't going to publicly discuss politics," he said.
Other Democrats mentioned as possible candidates include Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a former U.S. House member. She has not ruled out a Senate bid.
Among Republicans, popular former Gov. Mike Rounds has announced his candidacy. Republican U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, a tea party favorite, has not ruled out a campaign.
The South Dakota race is a source of worry for Democrats. The party's prospects of holding the Senate majority have already been shaken by the recent retirement announcements of Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, which have thrown presumably safe Democratic seats into the toss-up column.
"If Sen. Johnson decides not to run, we'll definitely have some top-tier talent, and his son is certainly looking at it," said South Dakota Democratic Party Chairman Ben Nesselhuf.
A spate of appearances, including local media interviews to discuss child prostitution cases and his tenure on a Native American task force, have raised Brendan Johnson's public profile recently. Chatter about his plans has spilled onto the Facebook pages of South Dakota Democratic activists.