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18 is Enough: South Dakota Democratic Senators and the Third Term Curse

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South Dakota Democratic U.S. Senator Tim Johnson was once thought to be one of the few potential targets for a GOP pick-up in the 2008 election. Johnson had won his first two elections to the Senate by a total of 9,111 votes, including a 532-vote squeaker in 2002 against current Republican Senator John Thune.

Johnson is now considered a heavy favorite to win again in 2008. The latest Ramussen poll of 500 likely voters (conducted July 9th) gives Johnson a 60 to 35 percent advantage over Republican nominee Joel Dykstra.

With popular Democratic U.S. Representative Stephanie Herseth expected to win her fourth straight election and Barack Obama currently polling competitively with John McCain in the state, strong statewide support for Johnson might be the tipping point to bring Democratic control back to the state Senate for the first time since 1992.

If Johnson should win his re-election bid, he will become only the third Democrat in state history to be elected to three terms to the U.S. Senate. Tom Daschle was elected in 1986, 1992, and 1998; George McGovern was elected in 1962, 1968, and 1974.

McGovern and Daschle both began their 18-years in the Senate by ousting Republican incumbents – Daschle defeated 1-term Senator James Abnor and McGovern narrowly defeated Senator Joe Bottum (a Republican appointment who filled the vacancy caused by the death of GOP Senator Francis Case). Johnson also won his first term by defeating a sitting GOP Senator – Larry Pressler.

No Democrat, however, has ever been elected four times to the Senate in South Dakota. Both McGovern and Daschle sought a 4th term, but McGovern was defeated by James Abdnor in 1980 and Daschle was defeated by John Thune in 2004.

Republican Larry Pressler was also denied his attempt at a fourth term in 1996 when Johnson picked up his seat for the Democrats.

Another Republican Senator from South Dakota, Peter Norbeck, was elected three times (in 1920, 1926, and 1932), but died in office in 1936.

In fact, only one Senator from the state has been elected to four terms: Republican Karl E. Mundt (in 1948, 1954, 1960, and 1966).

While Johnson has made great strides in recovering from the cerebral arteriovenous malformation that struck him in December 2006, the senior Senator from South Dakota would be 67 years old if he sought a fourth term (and an end to the 18-year Democratic curse) in 2014.

For more information on South Dakota’s electoral history, visit the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance’s Upper Midwest Historical Election Archive.

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