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The last time Republicans held all seats in South Dakota’s congressional delegation I was 11 years old and John F. Kennedy was president.

Could 2014 be the next time? Maybe.

With Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson’s announcement last week that he won’t be seeking a fourth term in the U.S. Senate, Republicans quite naturally have their eyes on the ball that last bounced for them in 1962.

The GOP has been close to total political domination in South Dakota for much of the last 51 years, almost always holding the governor’s chair, a majority in both legislative houses and most other statewide offices.

The congressional seats, however, have been oddly up for political grabs since George McGovern defeated Joseph Bottum for one of the state’s two U.S. Senate seats in November 1962.

This state likes its politics bright red close to home, but they get bluer on the road to D.C. In the 1970s our two senators were McGovern and Jim Abourezk, a combination that was envied by the most liberal of blue states.

Since January 1963, Democrats have held at least one seat and often more in the state’s congressional delegation, which shrunk from four seats to three following the 1980 census.

And when Stephanie Herseth Sandlin beat Larry Diedrich in June 2004 for the U.S. House seat vacated by former Gov. Bill Janklow, Democrats held all three spots. It didn’t last. Republican John Thune beat Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle that November.

A gritty campaigner and unreconstructed policy wonk, Johnson had beaten Thune, then a third-term House member, in 2002. He still considers that his toughest campaign.

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His race six years earlier wasn't bad either. Then a five-term U.S. representative, Johnson beat GOP Sen. Larry Pressler, who once seemed invincible.

Thune seems a little bit that way these days. He earned a national profile by beating Daschle. And by the time he stood for re-election in 2010, the Democrats had unraveled to where they couldn’t even field a challenger against the man who beat their standard-bearer six years earlier.

Also in 2010, Republican Kristi Noem knocked off Herseth Sandlin. So GOP eyes focused on 2014 and the Senate seat retained in 2008 by Johnson in a courageous comeback after a brain hemorrhage two years earlier.

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Johnson headed toward this election cycle talking like a man who could run again. But he was also feeling his age and disabilities.

With former Gov. Mike Rounds in the race and Noem still considering it, the campaign challenge ahead was brutal. During a stop Friday in Rapid City, Johnson seemed relieved not to be running.

Meanwhile, a "Draft Brendan" campaign began last week for Johnson's son, Brendan. And Herseth Sandlin ponders her own chances in 2014.

Losing that Senate seat will be a stinging embarrassment for the Democrats. Holding it will be a challenge at least as daunting as it was in 2002.

And this time, they won't have the never-beaten Tim Johnson to do it.

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Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or kevin.woster@rapidcityjournal.com. The opinions expressed by this columnist are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Rapid City Journal.

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