Former Republican Gov. Mike Rounds announced plans Thursday to seek South Dakota's U.S. Senate seat, setting up a 2014 battle between two men who have never lost an election — a campaign that figures to draw widespread national attention as Republicans and Democrats jockey for control of the chamber.
A few minutes after Rounds announced he'd challenge Sen. Tim Johnson, the Democratic lawmaker issued a statement indicating his plans to seek a fourth term.
Rounds, 58, said he has worked well with Johnson in the past and considers him a friend. But he said he and Johnson disagree on some key issues.
"At this stage of the game, it's a matter of the direction of this country," Rounds said.
Johnson, 65, has dealt with several serious health issues in recent years that have slowed his speech and required him to sometimes use a motorized scooter when he needs to get around quickly. He had surgery in 2006 to stop bleeding in his brain caused by arteriovenous malformation, a condition that causes arteries and veins in the brain to grow abnormally large, become tangled and sometimes burst.
But in a statement, the popular legislator dispelled speculation that he might not seek re-election.
"I feel great, still have work to do, and I fully intend to put together a winning campaign in the weeks and months ahead," Johnson wrote, adding that he'd make a formal campaign announcement next year.
Bob Burns, a retired South Dakota State University political science professor, noted that Johnson won re-election in 2008 with 62 percent of the vote, albeit against a lesser-known opponent than Rounds. He said South Dakota voters seem to be understanding of Johnson's physical challenges.
"We know that his mind continues to be keen. While he may take more time to express himself orally than was true in the past, he nevertheless is able to do that," Burns said.
At a news conference announcing his candidacy, Rounds said he is running because he wants to end gridlock in Washington and help reduce the federal deficit, set good farm policies and protect industry from undue regulation. He also said he wants to get rid of major parts of President Barack Obama's health care law that expand Medicaid and subsidize insurance for some people because he doesn't think the government can pay for it.
Rounds said he learned during his two terms as governor that an elected official can stick to principles, such as controlling government spending, and still get things done.
"We need to become a country of cooperation instead of confrontation," he told a crowd of about 100 who showed up for his announcement.
Rounds was a state senator from 1991 to 2001 before serving two terms as governor from 2003 to 2011. After leaving office in early 2011, Rounds returned to his job as president and CEO of an insurance and real estate company based in Pierre.
Johnson was elected to the U.S. House in 1986 and to the Senate in 1996. He was re-elected in 2002 and 2008. He also previously served in the Legislature.
The Democratic senator said he considers Rounds a friend.
"I had an excellent working relationship with (Rounds) during his eight years as governor, and the fact that he has already re-stated his refusal to take the Grover Norquist 'no tax increases under any circumstances' pledge is a very good sign," Johnson said in a statement.
Burns, the political science professor, said Rounds will be a formidable candidate and Johnson represents the Democrats' best chance of keeping the seat.
Rounds became known as "Mr. Nice Guy," after he won the 2002 Republican gubernatorial primary against two other candidates who engaged in a nasty battle of attacks, and Rounds was able to maintain that image through his years as governor, Burns said.
"He left the office of governor without receiving a lot of sharp criticism, but at the same time not garnering undue enthusiasm either," Burns said.
Elizabeth Smith, an associate political science professor at the University of South Dakota, said she doubts Johnson's health will be an issue in the campaign.
"He's functioning in Congress and chairing a committee. It's hard to make the case he's not working hard for South Dakota," Smith said.
Johnson's office has said he moves through the Capitol on the motorized scooter so he can move quickly and conduct Senate business, not because he cannot walk under his own power. He often leaves the scooter behind as he heads into meetings and stands under his own power when speaking on the Senate floor.
Johnson's health hasn't slowed his ascent in the Senate. He because chairman of the Senate's powerful Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee in 2011.
Rounds said he doesn't expect the campaign to begin in earnest until early 2014, but he had to declare his candidacy now to begin building the campaign organization and raising the money needed to challenge an incumbent.
His campaign said his accomplishments as governor included beginning construction of an underground science laboratory at the former Homestake gold mine in the Black Hills, boosting tourism, increasing research at state universities, creating college scholarships, working with the congressional delegation to save Ellsworth Air Force Base from closure in 2005, and helping to make South Dakota a business-friendly state with low taxes.
Associated Press Writer Henry C. Jackson in Washington contributed to this report.