As Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee tried to engineer the situation to their advantage — they preferred Herseth Sandlin to the more-liberal Johnson, and wanted to avoid a contentious primary — the party's worst-case scenario materialized. Johnson first expressed his disinterest in May 2013, leaving the door wide open for the former congresswoman to run. At the same time Johnson made his decision, Weiland announced his candidacy with support from some Johnson allies. Less than a week later, Herseth Sandlin surprised supporters by passing on a bid, even without Johnson in the race. She announced the desire to spend more time with her family as the reason for stepping aside, but several Democratic operatives familiar with her decision said she didn't want to face any primary opposition, even against a longer-shot candidate like Weiland.
"I had several conversations with her, she sounded like a candidate. She was on the cusp of running," said former South Dakota state party Chairman Ben Nesselhuf, who decamped the state after the dustup to manage an Iowa congressional campaign.
Against Weiland, Herseth Sandlin would have been a clear favorite to win the nomination. But against the more-liberal challenger, she would have been forced to defend her vote against the president's health care law, an issue she trumpeted in her unsuccessful 2010 reelection. In a state where Democrats have little margin for error, being pushed to the left in a primary would have been costly in a general election.
Indeed, for all the attention the GOP's establishment-tea party divide receives, this is a race where Democratic divisions between the party's progressive and centrist wings cost them an opportunity to compete. To the irritation of Reid and other campaign officials in Washington, Daschle encouraged Weiland to run, even though his former staffer's unabashedly liberal views make it difficult to win in conservative South Dakota. Reid even went so far as to proclaim Weiland wasn't "his choice" in the race, dismissing his candidacy. But in echoes of the tea party-establishment battles roiling the Republican Party, to the small universe of Democratic activists within the state, Weiland's progressive principles trumped Herseth Sandlin's more-electable profile.
"Stephanie's still trying to lick some wounds with the party faithful that were disappointed in her health care vote, and can't get over that. There was a motive there to shut her out, from even entertaining the option from running," said state Senate Minority Leader Jason Frerichs, an ally of Herseth Sandlin. "Her decision not to run surprised so many of us, we're kicking ourselves for not pushing harder on her to run."
For a time last year, the prospect of a messy primary fight on the Republican side seemed more likely. Rounds entered the race in early 2013 to much fanfare, but struggled to raise money and faced grumbling from outside conservative groups over his spending record and inclination toward deal-making as governor. One of the GOP's rising stars, Rep. Kristi Noem, who unseated Herseth Sandlin in 2010, was seriously considering entering the race, hoping to capitalize on the conservative discontent. But to outside conservative groups, her record was as untenable as Rounds's, with her support of the farm bill and near-the-bottom vote ratings among House Republicans from the antitax Club for Growth. After meeting with GOP leaders, including Sen. John Thune, she passed on a bid last June. "She realized that she could jeopardize what would be a slam-dunk Republican opportunity," said one Republican official with ties to South Dakota.