SIOUX CITY | After the November elections next year, the sign on Highway 50 proclaiming Vermillion, S.D., as the hometown of U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., will come down.
More than an insignia will be lost, though.
Johnson has been in the Senate since 1997 and is on four committees, including the influential Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, where he is chairman. For residents, he’s an important connection to levers of power in Washington.
And residents know it.
"There is a feel-good factor having one of the two senators from your hometown,” said Vermillion Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Steve Howe.
Johnson isn’t the only one leaving next year. He’s being joined by U.S. Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Mike Johanns, R-Neb., in not seeking new terms.
The result: Siouxland will lose three significant Senate voices at the same time – a first for the region in more than six decades. Harkin, Johanns and Johnson will leave with a combined 54 years in the Senate, representing constituents on hundreds of issues large and small.
The simultaneous moves create a unique vacuum of power for Siouxland states.
“It is going to be a difficult challenge to fill those shoes,” said Nebraska Corn Growers Association Executive Director Scott Merritt.
KEYS TO GOP RETAKING SENATE
Harkin, 73, has the most seniority of the three, with 30 years in the Senate and a chairman position on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. His annual Steak Fry in Indianola, Iowa, has been an important meet-and-greet for political candidates for decades.
He helped shepherd the landmark 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and directed millions to the dredging project at Storm Lake, Iowa, and the Perry Creek flood control project in Sioux City.
He was also the first of the three to announce he’s not running again. It came in January, followed a month later by Johanns, 62, a senator since 2009. Johnson, 66, who faces health issues since a stroke, in March said he’s passing on re-election.
All three said they felt they had done the job they were elected to do and that it was time to move on.
Thirty-three of the 100 Senate seats will be up for grabs in the mid-term elections in 2014. Each six-year term is being closely watched as Republicans work to regain control of the Senate in 2015.
With three important farm states losing voices, agricultural interests could take a hit, since the senators were highly involved in ag policy details, Merritt said.
Harkin was chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee when the multi-year agriculture policy, or Farm Bills, were enacted in 2002 and 2007. Johnson also secured funding for the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System that has improved water access in southeast South Dakota and Northwest Iowa.
Merritt spoke with Johanns on Thursday, just before Farm Bill procedural votes took place. He said he has a great relationship with Johanns, while Johnson and Harkin are also dialed into crop production needs.
"As far as agriculture, they get it," Merritt said.
He said the three broadened their influence, going to bat with senators from the coasts to explain corn lobby needs.
"Colleague to colleague is still very important in any chamber," he said. "So, to have those guys that have a working understanding and have lived it and breathed it, they are going to be sorely missed.”
Howe said Johnson excelled at aiding the whole state, while keeping an eye on his hometown. He helped secure funding for a downtown Vermillion streetscape renovation.
"Sen. Johnson has been really instrumental in helping us get some economic development projects through," Howe said.
Siouxland Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President Barbara Sloniker said she appreciates that the senators worked on air service, highway funding and Missouri River management issues.
"There is a combined years of experience (lost) in knowing The Hill and how to work with other members of Congress that will be new to new people coming in," said
A RACE TO NOVEMBER 2014
January 1943 was the last time new senators began representing all three states at the same time. All were Republicans -- Harlan Bushfield, of South Dakota; Kenneth Wherry, of Nebraska; and George Wilson, of Iowa.
For the 2014 races, political parties are still weighing candidates, who range from former Gov. Mike Rounds in South Dakota, a Republican, to U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Waterloo, in Iowa. Numerous others -- from U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron, to Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds -- have weighed options before saying no. Sioux City radio talk show host Sam Clovis is expected to announce his plans on Monday.
Whoever gets elected faces a unique challenge getting up to speed and making connections, said University of Iowa Political Science Professor Tim Hagle. The Senate works in great part based on tenure, particularly in how powerful committee chairman positions are decided, he said. That means Siouxlanders will be attempting to push key projects with senators who won't have the experience and clout of the departed lawmakers.
"The Senate can be a difficult place to figure out how things work. If you are a newer person, you come in and it's all very strange for the first, maybe, year or two,” Hagle said. “Usually the people that are there longer will be in a better position of power.”
Sloniker is hopeful that the void left by Harkin, Johnson and Johanns will be small. The new senators could be former House members who know how D.C. works. Plus, Siouxland has three other influential senators in Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa; Deb Fischer, R-Neb.; and John Thune, R-S.D.
"We do still have the other three to balance it off," she said.
Howe, of Vermillion, said it will take some getting used to once their native Johnson leaves office.
“It is going to be more difficult,” he said, “to make that connection with the next senator.”