If Brendan Johnson, as widely rumored, runs for his father Tim Johnson’s Senate seat, he’ll be attempting something very unusual in South Dakota history: winning a Senate seat without previously serving in the U.S. House.
The last South Dakota senator to win election to their seat without House experience was Harlan Bushfield in 1943. Bushfield was a former governor (which means Mike Rounds is facing a similar burden of history). Before him was John “Chan” Gurney in 1939, who as near as I can tell had never been elected to any public office until he entered the Senate.
Brendan Johnson is in the same position as Gurney. If he won a Senate seat it would be his first elected office.
But U.S. attorneys running for Congress is not that unusual nationally, even if it’s novel for South Dakota.
“U.S. Attorney is a very political office,” said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “We get a lot of U.S. Attorneys who run for Congress or statewide office. They’re not just lawyers, they’re political folks… You usually have to have some political credentials to get that post.”
And compared to elected politicians, Rothenberg said, U.S. Attorneys have at least one advantage: “They don’t carry the baggage of having a long legislative record.”
Judging by history, you would expect Rep. Kristi Noem or ex-Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin to have the edge for the senate seat, should Sen. Tim Johnson not run again. You have to go back a long ways to find precedent for governors making the move Rounds is trying, but there have been five people who’ve already walked his path. Brendan Johnson would be in much more novel territory for South Dakota.