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Field in South Dakota Whittled Down to One Dem and Three to His Right

The race to fill retiring Sen. Tim Johnson's (D-S.D.) seat moves into the hard-campaigning stage. (For complete 2014 midterm coverage, get your campaign fix on The Grid.)

by
Todd Epp

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June 22, 2014 - 8:14 pm
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South Dakota’s U.S. Senate race has been reduced from an octet to a quartet with the results of the state’s June 3 Republican primary.

Interestingly, however, three of the four members of the remaining quartet of candidates are all singing—or have sung—from the Republican songbook. That leaves the lone Democrat, Rick Weiland, who many South Dakota pundits wrote off just a month ago, with a puncher’s — or is it a tenor’s? — chance in the November general election.

Former South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds emerged from the quintet of GOP candidates with 55 percent of the vote—about the same percentage that he received in his previous two statewide races for governor. The other four all ran to the right of Rounds.

While three of Rounds’ four Republican opponents have endorsed him postelection, the third-place finisher, state Rep. Stace Nelson, has so far carried out on his pre-election threat to not endorse Rounds. Nelson polled nearly 18 percent of the low turnout primary (31 percent on the Republican side) and supports former Republican state Sen. Gordon Howie of Rapid City, a tea party stalwart in the state—and an independent candidate for the Senate.

Nelson was a harsh critic of Rounds in primary debates and news conferences. The former Marine blew the trumpet of “crony capitalism” against Rounds. He also harped that Rounds was responsible for the EB-5 visa scandal involving Chinese and Korean investors and a failed beef packing plant in Aberdeen. Rounds championed the visa program as a means to finance the plant during his term.

Weiland, who has visited all 311 towns in South Dakota and sings a solo in favor of expanding Obamacare and decreasing income inequality and “crony capitalism,” should be a beneficiary of the Republicans’ rifts. However, he has yet to receive Democratic Senate Campaign Committee support—he wasn’t even listed as a candidate on the dscc.org website as of June 11. And surprisingly, he faces his own Republican problem—from the center left—from former Republican U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler.

Pressler polled 18 percent in a recent Rasmussen poll, putting him in striking distance of Weiland at 29 percent, who in turn is within striking distance of Rounds at 44 percent. “Some other candidate,” presumably Howie, polled 2 percent, and 7 percent were undecided.

The poll has come into question because the same poll listed Weiland as the Democratic candidate against Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard in the gubernatorial race.

But nothing wins like winning.

FiveThirtyEight.com upped the former two-term governor’s chances of winning the Senate seat from 90 to 95 percent following the June 10 Virginia primary. Rounds also has raised over $3 million already, has over a million dollars in the bank, and is raising more from his chorus of donors.

Without knowing the cross tabulations from the recent polling, it is difficult to accurately determine if Pressler hurts Rounds or Weiland more. Some observers call it a draw, with the tie going to Rounds with his healthy but not insurmountable lead. But no one knows for sure.

On paper at least, Weiland is running against three prominent Republicans, which could give him the advantage—and the plurality necessary to hold retiring Sen. Tim Johnson’s Democratic seat.

“It has the potential for that,” says Rick Knobe, longtime Sioux Falls talk show host at KSOO-AM and a former two-term mayor of Sioux Falls. “But the pollsters say otherwise but pollsters can be wrong,” he noted the day after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor unexpectedly lost his primary race in Virginia.

Knobe sees Pressler—who has publicly supported Pres. Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and drifted leftward—as the wild card in a race where people are tired of politicians singing the same old songs.

“He needs to continually talk to people who are disaffected,” Knobe said.

Howie, according to Knobe, will likely hurt Rounds’ right flank, but Knobe thinks the “West River” (west of the Missouri River) tea party leader “won’t come across the Missouri River” to the more populated eastern part of the state.

But South Dakota’s most prominent Republican blogger and political operative sees Howie’s insurgency as a problem for Rounds—and as an “unwitting pawn of the Democrats.”

“The only way a Democrat can win is to hope for a Gordon Howie surge,” Pat Powers of the South Dakota War College blog writes. “The only way that Democrats stand even a shadow of a chance to do anything in the race is to bleed votes off Mike Rounds.”

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