Some think the younger Johnson may be vulnerable to the charges of nepotism sure to come from the GOP. And Herseth Sandlin — though she has not divulged her interest in the race — has proven campaign skills and high favorability ratings in the state. "I have no doubt that Stephanie Herseth Sandlin would be the strongest candidate Democrats could run for Senate in South Dakota," Democratic media consultant Steve Murphy said this week. Murphy worked on Herseth Sandlin's 2010 House race, which she narrowly lost to Republican Rep. Kristi Noem in a wave year for the GOP. "She runs terrific campaigns," Murphy said.
If Herseth Sandlin decides to run, said EMILY's List national press secretary Marcy Stech, "she would be a formidable candidate with a proven track record of putting South Dakota families first."
While both candidates have advocates touting their potential, Nesselhuf said Monday he's confident they can work out the nomination behind the scenes. "I think we have two incredibly qualified candidates, either one of whom can win the race," he said. "I don't think there will be a primary. I think they both understand that a primary would significantly challenge the nominee's chances of winning."
As for the polling, Nesselhuf said it's too early to take Herseth Sandlin's lead as an indicator that she'd be the favorite. "I don't put a lot of stock in a poll on primary voters this early out," he said. "I imagine that those numbers are very fluid. That's not to take away from Stephanie in any way."
The Senate jockeying could come down to Herseth Sandlin's perception of the political landscape; she's also been mentioned as a potential candidate for governor or her old House seat. But if Gov. Dennis Daugaard retains high approval ratings and Noem opts not to run for Senate, she may decide her best bet is to convince Democrats she's the better candidate to retain Johnson's seat rather than take her chances against a strong GOP incumbent. That is, if she's interested in running for anything at all.
"If I have anything to say about it, she will be [running for office]. She's an incredibly good candidate," Nesselhuf said. He mentioned her grandfather, Ralph Herseth, a former governor of South Dakota, and father, Lars Herseth, who narrowly lost his own gubernatorial race. "There's ... a bit of family legacy in the governor's chair," he said. "I think that's enticing for her."
Herseth Sandlin's record and campaign skills, Murphy said, are well-suited to any of those three races. "I think she'd be a very strong candidate for whatever office [she runs for]," he said. "Stephanie was a Blue Dog leader in the House, is a strong fiscal conservative."
While the Democrats and Noem weigh their bids, former Gov. Mike Rounds has been campaigning and fundraising since just after the 2012 election. Rounds also possesses high favorability and — as of December — a $250,000 head start. Some have questioned Rounds's conservative credentials, but so far he has the field to himself. Whether that changes — and how Democrats will fit the pieces together as they seek to produce three statewide candidates — remains to be seen.