In shadow primary, Johnson backers more aggressive than Herseth Sandlin’s

Mary Perpich, the chair of the Brookings County Democratic Party, would be glad to see that county’s former resident Stephanie Herseth Sandlin run for the U.S. Senate.

But she’s endorsed a movement urging another Democrat, U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, to run for the same position.

“We’re behind Brendan Johnson when – not if – he enters the race for U.S. Senate!” Perpich wrote in a statement released by supporters of Johnson’s candidacy. “He’s got everything going for him!”

Johnson and Herseth Sandlin are widely seen as the two most likely Democrats to run for Senate in the aftermath of Sen. Tim Johnson’s retirement.  Herseth Sandlin is a former congresswoman, while Johnson is both U.S. Attorney and the son of U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson, whose retirement has created an open Senate seat for the two Democrats to consider.

But so far only Johnson’s supporters are active behind the scenes trying to bolster his potential candidacy.

“At this point, he’s the only candidate I’ve heard about,” Perpich said about Johnson. “I hadn’t considered Stephanie Herseth Sandlin because I had not read or heard her name mentioned in terms of a candidacy.”

Herseth Sandlin didn’t return a message seeking her comment, but a longtime friend said she has been genuinely uncertain about whether to run for Senate.

“My last conversation with Stephanie… she just said she’s not ready to make a decision,” said Judy Duhamel, a Rapid City resident who formerly chaired the South Dakota Democratic Party. That discussion happened about three weeks ago, Duhamel said.

The former congresswoman is being encouraged to run for Senate by Democratic Party officials in Washington, D.C., who are familiar with her from her seven years in Congress. Personal factors are weighing against a run, including a new job at Raven Industries in Sioux Falls, a new home here, and a four-year-old son.

“She’s loving her job and loving living in South Dakota and enjoying the time with her son,” Duhamel said. “She has really heavy decisions to make.”

Johnson’s thinking is less clear. He declined to comment about his potential political future when reached by phone Wednesday, citing his current position as U.S. Attorney, which has limitations on political activity.

But some party activists are hoping to prod Johnson into the race. One, Lincoln County Democratic Party chair Ryan Casey, is spearheading a “Draft Brendan Johnson” movement.

Casey has set up a webpage for people to sign their names to a petition urging Johnson to run for Senate. He’s also emailed and called Democrats around the state, asking legislators and party officials like Perpich to support Johnson becoming a candidate. When they do, Casey sends out news releases announcing the endorsements.

“From my standpoint it’s been about trying to galvanize fellow Democrats, fellow progressives,” said Casey. “If or when he does run, he could hit the ground running right out of the gate and be strong as a candidate.”

There’s no Ryan Casey equivalent in Herseth Sandlin’s camp, though she does have supporters making some efforts. Someone has set up a Facebook page called “Run Stephanie” and posted messages and links there encouraging Herseth Sandlin to run, but the manager of that page didn’t respond to a message from the Argus Leader.

Doug Sombke, the president of the South Dakota Farmers Union, said he’s been contacted by both Johnson and Herseth Sandlin supporters. The two camps, he added, are not talking to each other.

Other South Dakota Democratic activists and officials say they’ve had no contact from anyone urging support for Herseth Sandlin.

“Nobody’s really approached me on her behalf,” said Jason Frerichs, the Democratic leader in the state senate – who did hear from the “Draft Brendan” movement despite being a Herseth Sandlin supporter.

That reflects an organized effort by Casey and other people behind the “Draft Brendan” page.

“When Tim (Johnson) did go ahead and announce his retirement, a lot of us wanted to waste no time and urge Brendan to run,” Casey said.

Casey said he hasn’t “spoken directly with Brendan” about the draft movement, but can’t speak for anyone else involved in the movement.

“I couldn’t even comment on who he’s talking to directly,” Casey said.

The other primary organizers behind “Draft Brendan” include nine activists and officials who signed their name to a letter urging him to run. Others have supported the movement without signing their names – Casey said one man has paid for ads promoting Johnson on Facebook, but may not be “ready to have his name publicly among those of us urging Brendan to run.”

“In general, this draft campaign is open source and people can help out however they want,” Casey said.

Experts said Casey’s efforts probably won’t have a huge impact on the race, but could possibly discourage Herseth Sandlin from entering the race if he sews up enough support.

“I’ve seen candidates wait so long to make a decision that potential endorsers have endorsed another candidate,” said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “To the extent that Johnson’s folks can get people to say that ‘if he runs, I’ll endorse him,’ at a certain point that becomes a potential problem for Herseth Sandlin, because then she starts behind the eight-ball.”

Jon Schaff, a political science professor at Northern State University, said the most likely outcome of draft campaigns is minimal.

“This strikes me as a very small handful of activists who are trying to give a perception that something’s actually happening,” he said. “Let’s wait until people actually announce.”

Schaff may not have to wait long for those announcements.

“Considering that (Republican Senate candidate) Mike Rounds has been in the race for months, I think it’ll be sooner – weeks, not months, and perhaps days,” said Ben Nesselhuf, chairman of the South Dakota Democratic Party. “I think something’s going to move pretty quick.”

Argus Leader reporter Jonathan Ellis contributed to this story.