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Tim Johnson retirement boosts GOP hopes to take back Senate (+video)

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Professional Senate watchers believe that, among the remaining open seats, Republicans have their strongest shot at capturing West Virginia and Iowa but have only an outside shot, at best, of nabbing Michigan.

Overall, however, the seven retirements during the 2014 election cycle mirror similar levels in the past three cycles – five senators walked away in 2008 followed by eight in 2010 and 10 in 2012.

Popular former Gov. Mike Rounds (R) has joined the fray and showed a wide electoral edge over the younger Johnson but only the slimmest of margins versus Ms. Sandlin, according to a recent Public Policy Polling survey. But the same poll also shows Rep. Kristi Noem (R) of South Dakota within striking distance: she would hold a general election advantage against the younger Johnson while a contest with Ms. Sandlin would be a dead heat.

[Editor's note: The original version stated the results of the Public Policy Polling poll incorrectly.]

That’s significant because Representative Noem, swept into office on the tea party wave of 2010, could potentially gain the good graces of powerful outside groups like the fiscally conservative Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF), which have shown a distaste for Mr. Rounds.

"Now that Senator Johnson is retiring, the door is wide open for Republicans in South Dakota to elect a true conservative. We're working with our members in the state to find a candidate who will fight for limited government in the US Senate,” said Matt Hoskins, the SCF’s executive director, in a statement, specifically citing higher taxes on some consumer goods and Rounds’s unwillingness to swear off future tax increases as points of concern.

"If the grass roots in South Dakota get behind a strong challenger, SCF will seriously consider supporting that candidate against Mike Rounds in the Republican primary. This race is too important to concede it to another moderate politician who won't fight for limited government," said Mr. Hoskins, a former aide to Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina.

If that sounds like a recipe for more ideological pyrotechnics in a Republican primary, think again.

Election watchers at the Rothenberg Political Report argue that “even though there is the potential for a competitive Republican primary, neither Rounds nor Noem look like the the type of polarizing candidate who has given Republicans problems in other states over the last two cycles.”

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